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This workforce program in West Virginia could be critical for the nation.

Born and raised in West Virginia, Brandon Dennison has always loved Appalachia and its people. It was painful to see unemployment raising but he knew one thing: "West Virginians love to make stuff, grow stuff, fix stuff." So he started from there and conceived a new kind of workforce development program that is part social enterprise incubator, part training, and has a key principle: it creates a work schedule for the participants that is a mix of paid work, classes and personal development. His vision: to unlock the courage and creativity of the region and turn job-seekers into job-creators. Ashoka's Simon Stumpf caught up with Dennison to learn more.

Q: You’re from central Appalachia, coal country. Can you tell us how you see the challenge you’re working on?

A: We’re addressing generational poverty caused by an over-reliance on one industry -- coal in our case. We have some of the higher unemployment rates in the country. What worries me more, though, is our labor participation rates. Fewer than 50% of working age adults are in the workforce.

 

Q: How does Coalfield Development, the organization you started and run, step in?

A: We’re trying to create opportunity in a rural place that’s become very, very distressed. So we have job training efforts, vocational programs, and links to community colleges -- these are standard. But what's needed is job creation more than job training because the existing jobs won’t be around much longer. A lot of resources are wasted when we don't realize this. For example, a state-sponsored training program recently certified 800 out-of-work miners to be HVAC technicians when there are no, or very few, jobs in that field. So with Coalfield, we're pioneering new economic markets so we end up with an economy that’s diversified, adaptive.

 

Q: Where do you start? 

A: We hear a lot about jobs, jobs, jobs in coal country. And we don’t disagree. Jobs are important. What we’re saying though is that quality jobs allow people to discover themselves, contribute, have a full and meaningful life. This is not about giving out certificates in one skill set or the other and setting people up for 30-year careers in that one thing. It’s about cultivating lifelong workers who are also lifelong learners. The mindset we want to model, inspire, and unlock is more entrepreneurial -- prepared for shifting industries, for a changing world.

Q: So how do you operationalize this?

A: We developed a 33-6-3 workweek structure. Our crew members work 33 hours paid, just as they would for any other business. Then they’re in the classroom for another six working toward a degree from an accredited community college. For the remaining three, they’re working on some of the more deeply rooted issues that come with generational poverty. This means money management, time management, becoming a leader, communicating effectively, being a problem solver. Over just the last few years we’ve employed more than 150 crew members across our 10 enterprises, and of course this is just the beginning.

 

Q: Does Coalfield Development function like an R&D for the region? Is that right?

A: Exactly. So for example, we’re a licensed solar installer, the first in the southern part of West Virginia. We also host a sustainable agriculture business that’s plugged into the whole food economy. And we make and market shirts from recycled plastics and cotton. Some of these businesses will fail, others will flourish -- that’s part of the learning and ultimately revitalization of the economy here.

 

Q: Any enterprises linked to the coal industry?

A: Yes. We are piloting land reclamation projects that put miners already skilled in machine operation back to work. The mining industry left huge strip mines and mountain removal sites. Anyone who’s driven through the region will know what these look like -- total destruction, vast scars on the landscape. We want to reclaim these sites in a way that looks to the future and converts those sites into productive use.

Q: Do you imagine expanding your model regionally, even nationally?

A: Yes. Our model gives unemployed people opportunities to earn a living while finishing their degree and strengthening their overall skill and confidence to solve problems at work, in their life, in their community. Our schedule gives people the right structure, the right peer group, and enough income that they can focus on learning and growing. Sure, we're testing this approach in Appalachia but its application is broader and we’re actively looking for partner organizations to take it up, adopt the core principles, and adapt the rest for local realities. That’s the bigger potential.

 

Q: What role if any does the public sector play in the success of your model?

A: It’s a good question and my answer is: it’s critically important. On the one hand, we’re incubating real businesses and employing people -- these are private sector jobs. But public sector investment is also needed in education, infrastructure, and business startups. Our work is early-stage innovation that the private sector can’t yet fully sustain on its own, given the region's economic distress.

 

Q: How did arrive to this work? It seems like a calling.

A: I was born and raised in West Virginia and Coalfield Development was born of my love of this place. But I've realized that there are many rural places throughout the country and world with economies based on extractive industries. The more I study history and economics, the more I realize the resource curse is very real. Places endowed with natural resources don’t often reap the blessings or the financial returns of their natural resources. Many never have, even when business was good. Reversing that or maybe moving past it is really where my passion is.

Q: Looking ahead, what’s on the horizon for rural America?

A:  There's a perception of rural America as a kind of drug addicted dark canyon of hopelessness. That’s not fair or accurate. It's not like rural people have just decided they want to be drug addicts. Rural America has very real, systematic challenges that we're facing. But we also have skills and a mindset that’s distinctive and needed. We like to make stuff, grow stuff, fix stuff. Our land provides food and energy for the country and also opportunities for peace, quiet, reflection.

In my view, rural America has not been as lifted up and respected as it could or should be, and this has opened deep fissures in our society. I also think economically, we have much more to offer than what’s being realized now. I want to be part of the group of entrepreneurs who builds the next chapter. And I already see that we’re inspiring a mindset shift, from “How am I going to get a job with one company for 30 years?” to “How can I be a really creative worker and create my own job for myself?”

Brandon Dennison is a 2018 Ashoka Fellow. Read more about Ashoka innovators in the United States here.

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