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Beyond Certifications:
Blazing Trails and Changing
Lives in Appalachia

During a visit to West Virginia in 1963, President John. F. Kennedy noted with admiration that “the sun doesn’t always shine in West Virginia… but the people always do.”

Kennedy’s words might well be extended to much of Appalachia, a region fraught for decades by economic decline and the myriad problems poverty brings: drug addiction, health problems, and, at times, despair.

Yet, in spite of these challenges --- or perhaps, in part, because of them --- Appalachia has more than its fair share of hardworking, resilient, and creative people. People who are working to rebuild communities from scratch after they’ve lost backbone industries. People who seek to preserve the rich cultural heritage of the region while embracing new opportunities. And people who get up, day in and day out, driven by the desire to build a brighter tomorrow for generations to come.

Perhaps one of the brightest spots on the horizon is the area’s focus on developing tech talent. Jokingly referring to their vision as “Silicon Holler,” visionary leaders from our region are launching innovative programs to help communities transition from traditional industries, like coal production, to new industries focused on high-tech digital skills.

Over the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with one such program, “Project CODE” (CODE, cleverly, stands for “Creating Opportunities & Diversifying the Economy”).

Project CODE leverages the power of the Salesforce ecosystem to develop new job opportunities within Appalachian communities. Through a partnership with the West Virginia Department of Education, we are offering free Salesforce training classes to help adults and high school students earn Salesforce certifications.

The program was first conceptualized by the folks over at CentralApp, a start-up company connecting other companies with tech talent in Appalachia. CentralApp is built on the belief that talent, ingenuity, and work ethic are equally distributed… and economic opportunity should be as well. They launched our Salesforce training program with the goal of promoting “rural outsourcing,” or hiring remote tech talent from U.S. communities that lie outside of the typical economic hubs.

The increasing prevalence of remote work could be a game changer for our region. Too often, we lose talented young people who have to move away to find a well-paying job. Or, perhaps worse, many bright, skilled individuals settle for jobs that don’t make use of their talents, sacrificing their potential so they can continue living in the communities they call home.

As a high school educator, I’ve seen hundreds of promising students who aspire to work in the tech industry have their dreams go unfilled. And displaced workers suffer much of the same. Smart, capable individuals who have been laid off from declining industries could be well utilized in the digital economy if they are given the opportunity to put their minds to new uses.

So when I had the opportunity to work with Project CODE, I leapt at the chance. And I am so glad I did.

Over the past year working with the program, I’ve seen so many stories of transformation. Take, for example, Beth. Beth is a dynamic, intelligent young woman who was having trouble finding a job that would allow her to balance work with caring for her infant daughter. She enrolled in the Project CODE training program, earned the Salesforce Administrator, App Builder, and Service Cloud certifications, and is now making great money working part-time from home through CentralApp’s talent placement services.

I’ve also worked with people like James, a former house painter who, in a year’s time, became a Salesforce developer and tripled his salary. And Derek, a young man who earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, but ended up working at a local big-box store because he needed to stay close-by to care for his sick mother. After enrolling in our program and gaining his Salesforce credentials, Derek secured a job working remotely for a web development and data integrations firm.

These stories are a testament to the magnitude of tech talent lying dormant in Appalachian communities. Think of what we might accomplish if we activated more of it.

That’s why I am so excited to note that this year we are scaling the program across West Virginia’s public education system. Online resources like Focus on Force and Trailhead have been instrumental in helping us expand our program quickly. By integrating FoF study materials and Trailhead trailmixes into our curriculum, we were able to build out a solid plan of study to help more students gain Salesforce skills and certifications. But, for us, it’s about more than credentials. It’s about creating hope and empowering people to realize their full potential.

Will Totten is a Technology Integration Specialist for Spring Valley High School in Wayne County, West Virginia. He also serves as the Training Director for Project CODE, a program funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission and Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board of Pennsylvania in partnership with the West Virginia Department of Education, the Edventure Group, and CentralApp.

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