Code Burst, Episode 1: The Conflicting Coverage of Mined Minds, a Free Coding Bootcamp that Retrains ex-Coal Miners
By Henry Kronk
March 07, 2018
Code Burst, a podcast produced in collaboration with CKUT 90.3 FM and eLearning Inside News, will premier on Monday, March 5th. Over several episodes, it will investigate the free coding bootcamp Mined Minds, which seeks to retrain out-of-work coal miners for a job in the tech industry. Tune in to/stream CKUT 90.3 FM on Mondays at 11:30 or subscribe on Apple Podcasts.
I first came across the coding bootcamp called Mined Minds in a story a colleague shared with me. The title reads “In Appalachia, Coding Bootcamps that Aim to Retrain Coal Miners Increasingly Show Themselves to Be ‘New Collar’ Grifters.” It was written by Elizabeth Catte and put out by Belt Magazine in mid January.
“A recent class action lawsuit filed in West Virginia against a retraining program that promised unemployed coal miners a foothold in the tech industry offers a cautionary tale to those banking on the rise of a Silicon Holler,” Catte writes. “At least 60 plaintiffs in the suit allege that coding bootcamp operators Mined Minds, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization, provided inadequate training and failed to place trainees in paid apprenticeship programs, which many believed would be a cornerstone of the experience.”
It seemed like a confluence of clichés to me. An overpromising, under-delivering tech training start up meets the Appalachian carpetbagger rolling through town in the wake of bankrupt mining companies, looking to prey on the disenfranchised.
But it also sparked a distant memory. After a quick search, I realized that I’d heard about these guys before. In their early days, PBS, a local Pittsburgh station KDKA, and CNN Money covered Mined Minds with a strikingly different angle. These guys have an incredible story. They operate as a non-profit. They offer their courses for free. These guys sound good.
In the practice of coal mining, there’s something known as rock burst. It happens in deep mines and tunnels around the world. Deep drilling causes the rock to shift and buckle. Shards can unexpectedly burst from the tunnel walls, injuring or killing miners.
Code Burst is a story about a violent, unexpected shift in the structure of the global economy. It involves the growing skills gap, the growing tech industry, the growing obsolescence of higher education, and one married couple who either tried to make a difference, or tried to make a buck. This is a story about trust.
I started reading other articles and interviews. It wasn’t just Catte’s story that didn’t completely add up. There were glaring inconsistencies across the board.
CBS reported that the two founders funded the coding bootcamp with their own money, while two local sources said that the cost of enrollment was supplemented or provided entirely by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor. PBS quotes the co-founders saying they don’t use any federal or state grants in 2016, but the Appalachian Regional Commission—a federal body—provided a grant of $1.5 million that was to be split with another software development training organization CentralApp less than a year later. The grant stipulated that the two educators “work together to provide courses and certifications needed to qualify for high-demand technology jobs, enabling participants to work locally for companies that can be located anywhere in the world.”
On November 17th of last year, the CBS Pittsburgh affiliate KDKA released an investigative report. It took a different tone from the previous stories:
“[Max] Pokropowicz and Brian Lewis went through a Mined Minds coding camp at the Tech Shop in Bakery Square, and say they were promised a four to six month apprenticeship to give them the practical experience necessary to land a job.
But after 13 days, Mined Minds laid Pokropowicz off, and terminated Lewis’s apprenticeship after just three days.
“All they said was it was circumstances beyond our control, and there’s nothing we could do to avoid it. Anytime I would ask for more information, they wouldn’t give any,” Pokropowicz said.
They weren’t the only ones left high and dry.
According to other former students KDKA’s Andy Sheehan has spoken with, “of the 20 who started the boot camp, only seven graduated. Of those seven, six were quickly let go. The boot camp, funded with a $71,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry appears to be a bust.”
On November 18th, a day after the KDKA report, the nationally broadcast CBS Evening News published their own investigation, but this time, it resorted to the usual, ‘uplifting news style’ positive coverage.
Did these two investigative reporters who work for the same company even know they were both in the same town, maybe on the same day? They should have gotten lunch.
Enter the Lawsuit
Later in December, WVVA, an NBC affiliate based in West Virginia reported the class action lawsuit that Elizabeth Catte wrote about for Belt. Their report wasn’t positive.
Speaking to WVVA reporter Annie Moore, one of the two defendants in the suit who have gone public, Ty Cook, said the following:
“We became suspicious on day one when we learned there was no pay. We were told to quit our jobs but come everyday to still study. Later on, we did research in the tech world and realized we don’t have the skills people are asking for with these tech jobs.”
As Moore reports, “Cook quit the program in November and Victoria Frame followed suit. As Cook said, “We got more suspicious when we saw articles where there were issues in Pennsylvania and the company’s problems there. That’s when I became very concerned about my future with Minded Minds.”
Amanda Laucher, one of the co-founders, told Moore a different version of the story.
“Tori and Ty were both within days of completing the initial training and were to be offered a paid apprenticeship position upon completion. The dating couple both dropped out of class in support of Tori’s mother, who was asked to leave the class because of unprofessional behavior, sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints from four different team members while traveling to a tech conference in Europe. We have written complains on file as well as the record of a detailed letter asking Stephanie not to return to class.”
But when pressed on whether any of the team members filed police reports, Laucher said the matter was handled internally.
New responded to those allegations saying one of the team members Laucher is referring to denies he was sexually harassed or assaulted. In fact, he said he too has joined the class action suit seeking damages from Mined Minds.”
The story was getting way too weird. It didn’t make any sense.
What the Mined Minds Story Means for Other Communities
The cost of attending college around the world is going up. Last May, a Yale website published a report by demographer Joseph Chamie detailing how student debt, even in countries where university is free of cost, can make a university education prohibitively expensive.
“In tuition-free Sweden, for example, students borrow money as frequently as American students do – about 70 percent have student loans – and Swedish students graduate with about $20,000 in debt.”
In the U.S., the cost of private university tuition has doubled in the past thirty years. At public universities, it’s tripled.
And there’s this other thing going on. It’s called the skills gap.
On top of this, universities aren’t doing a great job of preparing students for the workforce. A 2014 study found that half of all graduates say their university degrees did not prepare them for the working world. A more recent survey is even less optimistic.
Facing record tuition at universities that may not prepare them for the job market that is, as some say, ravenous for talent, who wouldn’t want to seek out alternatives to higher education?
That’s where coding bootcamps come in. The gist of coding bootcamps is that students take an intensive bootcamp-like course on computer programming. When they graduate, they’ll be able to work as web developers, software developers, or in some other role in the tech industry. Institutions like The Flatiron School or Hack Reactor charge around the ticket price of a 2018 Toyota Corolla and bring learners from zero to employable full stack software engineer in a matter of weeks.
Most coding bootcamps are for-profit businesses and, like many past and future for-profit educators, a good many have defrauded their students.
In fact, Flatiron School is considered by some to have the best integrity and reputation among bootcamps. They pioneered graduate success self-reporting (in their words at least) and they were a partner on the Obama Administration’s TechHire Initiative. The effort provided $100 million in grants to help Americans pursue a job in tech.
But last Fall, they paid a $375,000 settlement to the state of New York for operating without a license and misrepresenting their students’ success rate. In other words, they were really proud about how honest they were, and then they had to pay a hefty fee for lying.
I could talk at great length about for-profit educators who can’t help but defraud their customers. Trump University be a good example. The scrutiny the Obama Administration turned on for-profit educators resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, and the outright closure of two major players: Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute. Other notable perps were the University of Phoenix and DeVry University.
One factor that continues to drive students to non-profit universities despite the high costs and the poor payoff is trust. Students (and parents who are willing and able to pay for tuition) trust public universities to provide them with a good education. Non-profit educators simply don’t defraud their students to anywhere near the same degree as for-profits.
So when a bootcamp comes along that is offered for free, potentially includes an agreement for employment upon graduation, and is located in an economically distressed region, you really would hope you can trust them.
You’d really hope that they mean what they say, and nothing shady is going on. Because if it works for them, maybe it could work elsewhere. Maybe students would be better equipped to pursue their education without worrying whether or not they’ve already been defrauded.
Right now, I hope I can trust Mined Minds. I would hope that any willing learners who want to improve their socioeconomic situation would be able to meet with the companies that are hungry for jobs so they could scratch each others’ backs.
But the story of Mined Minds fits a pattern. They potentially share a striking amount of details with other confirmed for-profit frauds, like operating without a license, benefitting from federal funds, claiming they have hearts of gold, clearly miscommunicating with at least some of their students, and generating a good deal of negative press. Multiple parties from different locations have levied the same claims against them. A reasonable person might conclude they’re too good to be true.
I think that there’s a chance that these guys aren’t who they say. I also think there’s a chance that they got gamed by the system. I think that, through a long equation comprised of disenchanted ex-learners meeting with underpaid and overworked journalists in an economically depressed region of the country, it’s possible that a seriously negative and untrue narrative of these guys got out. And a lot of people liked it better than the good narrative.