Biden To Coal Miners: Learn To Code

Yeah, you! You over there! There’s still a surprisingly large demand for people who know COBOL! (Photo: Scott Eisen, Getty Images)

Democratic presidential contender and Joe Biden has some advice for the recently disrupted: learn to program.

At a rally in Derry, New Hampshire on Monday, per the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, Biden talked about how unemployed miners and coal workers who have lost their jobs in recent years can find “jobs of the future” if they “learn to program.” Referencing his role in a Barack Obama-era programming skills initiative in schools, Biden commented that “Anybody who can go down 3000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well... Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God’s sake!”

What, exactly, these blue collar workers in the mining and coal-shoveling sectors should learn to code is unclear. A December jobs report by Challenger, Grey, & Christmas found that the mining and tech sectors are both shedding thousands of jobs nationwide. (So too is everything coal-related.) It’s fair to say the long-term prospects for IT workers are better, with the Bureau of Labour Statistics projecting that computer and information technology jobs will grow “12 per cent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.” Meanwhile, dirty energy jobs are dying left and right despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to slash regulations.

But the issue has less to do with whether programming is a desirable skillset—it is, in the same sense that speaking Arabic or having a master’s degree in mechanical engineering are desirable skillsets. To Biden’s point, there are plenty of success stories, including with laid-off miners. This instead has more to do with whether everyone has the desire or aptitude to learn programming to plunge into an ultra-competitive job market for developers, whether job retraining programs are actually effective or will be adequately funded, or whether advising someone to just get a much more lucrative job in a high-tech sector actually comes across as helpful.

As Weigel noted, being told what you really need to do is pivot to making smartphone apps or coding a payroll system can instead come across as callous indifference to the what is currently happening to workers right now. (Especially so, given the future is not synonymous with STEM jobs and the gaping disconnect between how the tech sector generates wealth and how it doesn’t really share it.) That’s exactly why “learn to code” became the far right’s taunt of choice when mocking laid-off journalists. Maybe, uhh, nip this particular line in the bud and instead focus on the infrastructure, clean energy, and labour organising stuff.

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