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Michael Bloomberg: You can’t teach a coal miner to code

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There should be solutions and systems in place to help the people who have lost jobs because of closed coal plants and mines, said former New York Mayor and entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg said at the Bloomberg Energy Summit on Wednesday. He said that he gives “a lot of money to the Sierra Club,” to help close dirty coal plants as natural gas and clean energy projects come online, but he iterated that as a society we have to “have some compassion to do it gently.”

Subsidies to help displaced workers are one option, said Bloomberg, while re-training is another option. But, in a slight to the tech industry’s sometimes out-of-touch nature with workers outside of Silicon Valley, he said retraining needs to be realistic:

You’re not going to teach a coal miner to code. Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them [people] to code and everything will be great. I don’t know how to break it to you . . . but no.

The comment about Zuckerberg is just the latest indication of the backlash against the tech industry, which has developed a reputation for being filled with over-privileged, overpaid developers and execs that have little compassion for the struggles outside of the tech bubble. This reputation has culminated in protests against Google buses, and even against tech executives.


Outside of the tech industry, there’s a significant energy shift happening across the U.S. Older coal plants are being closed, following the rise of cheap natural gas, as well as the EPA’s plans to regulate carbon emissions (coal is the dirtiest form of electricity generation). Between 2007 and 2012, coal’s contribution to the U.S. electricity supply went from 50 percent to 37 percent. In a unusual twist, some of the country’s coal mines are actually not being shut down along with the plants, but are sending coal to other quickly developing countries like India.

However, few new coal plants are being built. New coal power only made up 10 percent of the total newly added electricity generation in 2013. At the same time, new natural gas made up almost half of the new electricity capacity, solar made up about a third of new electricity, and wind delivered about 7 percent of new electricity.

But as coal plants and mines are closed, there will obviously be displaced workers in coal-heavy states that are already facing a suffering economy. This will have major implications on society, and we need to find solutions to help them, said Bloomberg.

42 Responses to “Michael Bloomberg: You can’t teach a coal miner to code”

  1. Kaarle Kulvik

    Becoming a coder takes years of education, especially if you want to do something complex. I bet that anyone can learn to make their own webpages, but element methods or Monte Carlo simulations is not a switch you can just make. Mobile phone industries and chip manufacturers need also very skilled people in classical field theory and even quantum mechanics with these converted into a lot of programming.
    Not all developers get paid that well, especially in the start-up scene… there’s tons of struggling small companies and individuals who are trying to make it in the mobile game industry and finding the realities just too hard.
    So Bloomberg is right somebody with years of experience running coal machines, and explosives is not going to become a top coder and vice versa a coder is never going to be a coal miner… the door swings both ways.

  2. bclayshannon

    To be fair to Bloomberg, it seems his comments were taken out of context. He didn’t, after all, say coal miners can’t code (basically, that they’re dumb); what he said was, “They can’t just all go out and learn to code.” – Notice the word “all”!

    That’s true of any group of people – they can’t ALL go out and learn [pick the profession].

    Doubtless many, or at least some, former coal miners WILL learn to code. I have been a professional coder for 20 years, and prior to that I worked as a blaster in a gold mine. When the mine closed down, I was classified as a “displaced worker” due to the fact that all the gold mines in the area had shut down, I received training in “Applied Computer Studies” which included some programming courses, and…I learned to code. It can happen; it does happen.

  3. Kelvin Dudus Black

    The Tech industry is a knowledge works, or a knowledge foundry. Information or knowledge comes in and is hammered out into new information or knowledge made out of the working material(knowledge). Much like iron goes in and comes out still iron, but in a different form.

    Now, coding can be broadly(probably not very accurately), alluded to the capturing of information in one form and transforming it into a form better suited for the particular environment in which it is required, and storing it in a form that facilitates its easy access and usage.

    What is my point, Mark Zuckerberg is right in saying that and Michael Bloomberg should support him. If they learn to code, they learn a form of expression(a language) and therefore can bequeath knowledge.

  4. Blue-collar style jobs like these or in the manufacturing industry should be replaced by the service industry (plumbers, builders, electricians) and would probably be more suitable than software coding for these workers.

    Zuckerberg, and his ilk only think inside their bubble. As an aside, coding is also the easiest job to out-source, so less job security for a programmer than a plumber.

  5. Unix & C — 1969 -73. That’s the backbone technology from big search engines to Android & iOS. Mr.B’s remarks are on target — tech industry “archaic software tools” have not changed in 50 years. So, they’re still very hard to be taught/learn. Plus new tech industry’s lack of channel economics and tech players “ignorance of economics” contribute to significant social disasters. Tech industry unlike medicine has no social ethos like “Do no harm”. It’s purely a shareholder value maximization play just like automotive or finance or other engg industries. Actually the issue is bigger — not only will “learning to code” not solve any of the problems, it prevents alternative modes of thinking, by hogging society’s resources. Tech/software actually “destroys” fundamental “intuition” in math & science, because it boxes one’s thinking in domain via the tool. I can’t be in R and thinking about optics. Yes, I can code R to solve an optics problem, but that’s like saying writing about a painting is painting. Unless we improve compilers 1000x or exit compiler oriented technologies — to a different medium, dna manipulation or quantum or something else, it’ll be impossible to do any social good. Tech has plateau’d.

  6. ExtremelyRichProgrammer

    “over-privileged, overpaid developers”

    Really? Overpaid, really? A group of people who are intelligent, educated, passionately dedicated to their work. A group who works far more than the usual 40 hours per week, and dedicates significant personal time to projects and learning new technology. A group who has given away more free stuff to the world than anybody. A group who can overcome incredibly complex problems in relatively short periods of time is…


    Please, please, what do you think they *do* make, and what do you think they *should* make? Inquiring minds would love to know.

  7. Dylan Turnbull

    Maybe the problem is that It is whole communities that are facing the axe. It is not just that a coal miner needs to be retrain, but the whole community is geared to towards coal mining. There will be heavy equipment workshop locally, the economy of the town will be gered towards sharing the high wages of the coal minewre etc. I grew up in a town that supplied worker to a steelworks for 90 years. Everything from our high school to the government supplied public transport was geared towards the needs of the steel works. Then They shut down, it took 10 years for the wind down, but we had nearly 80% unemployment for my generation of high school graduates. Now the town has changed and recovered but it took nearly a decade. And that was in a boom economy, and sister towns haven’t. The problem isn’t that you can’t train people, the problem is social interia and the psychology of work. If you have never watched your home town die then quietly step back from this discussion.

  8. FundAmerica

    As we transitioned to the Industrial Age, critics bemoaned the loss of jobs resulting from the invention of machines. Same thing as we transitioned to the Information Age. ATM’s, pay-at-the-pump, computers, printers, CAD/CAM software and other things have displaced literally millions of blue and white collar jobs. Yet also during these periods our population has grown by over 200 million people and most are employed. So, while stressful, disruptive events and technologies do not crush employment overall…and if a worker is skillful enough to justify a $90,000/yr salary (plus benefits) then I’m sure he/she will find high demand for their skillset in other industries.

    But writing code? Not likely. Software is a math based art, something that only a minority of the overall population is suited to do (just as, say, not that many people enjoy mechanical engineering or accounting audits). Without a doubt there are some who can transition as they were forced into a life that really wasn’t right for them in the first place. But it’s so incredibly sad whenever we put up an ad for a Ruby or PHP programmer and get a line of Code Academy grads in a mid-life career change who frankly wasted their time as they have no idea about…or passion for…writing code.

  9. Look people lets be realistic, Everybody can’t code. Hate me if you want but it is true. Just like everyone can’t be a scientist, doctor, lawyer or even detective.

    Bloomberg was dead on! Coal Miners are not “stupid”, but everyone does not have the level logical thinking that is required to be a programmer.

  10. Interesting. My dad (he’s 71) is a retired coal miner. He worked in the coal industry until 1997 when he retired. Then went to community college for VB programming. He now teaches classes – .NET (VB and C#), and C++ and scripting languages. You can teach a coal miner to code.

  11. I think Bloomberg misses the real problem affecting job growth…. Efficiency. Gas/Coal power generating plants built today require fewer worker than plants built 20 years ago. On top of that, the workers now need to learn to use more technology (which can be trained). The issue is still the same, our increases in efficiency have a direct correlation to lowering the number of jobs needed across many industries.

    At the same time I agree with Bloomberg that you’re not going to teach a coal miner to become a programmer. (yes, there will be outlier cases, but for the most part he’s correct). There are only so many technology jobs out there and the competition for qualified workers is tight, and not everyone is well suited to be a technology worker.

    As we keep improving efficiency we’re going to run out of more and more jobs. Something’s got to give at some point.

  12. FrednInIT

    Every technology has four phases… start-up, maturity, die-off, artisan. Coal is no different than horses, steam engines, or vinyl records. Coal, along with other fossil fuels is in the maturity->die-off phase. Seriously – they are not long-term sustainable. There will be hold-outs and consolidation as the industry is transitioned to the long-tail (artisan).

    Regardless of what you believe/think about global warming, energy needs to become more environmentally friendly. There is no getting around it.

    What needs to be addressed, as a society, is how we wish to make that transition? If past transitions (e.g. death of American manufacturing) is any example – we will just cut everyone and everything off at the knees and let them fend for themselves. The extreme Anne Rand/Free Market/Capitalistic (Corporate) way of doing things. The other end of the spectrum is universal subsidies until they die. The first one is rather cold-hearted. The second one is financially untenable.

    The discussion needs to focus on: How do we transition the workers, individuals, humans, in this industry into others? It doesn’t have to be Coal–>Code – but, coal to other mining, construction, forestry, code, education, etc. etc.

    I don’t think anyone is saying that a miner is dumb or stupid. But, how do you re-train someone who’s worked in the mine for 20 years, who still has about 20 years left to be a productive member of society, into a new role? One that is both financially viable to society as well as rewarding as a human.

    Focus on the solution – we know what the problem is. Hyperbole and rhetoric get us nowhere.

  13. Mircea Goia

    I am a former miner who taught himself how to code.
    My story is here if anyone interested, including you Mr. Bloomberg.

    And I have friends, former miners, who did that too.
    Now, not all of the miners can be taught, but I think many of them can.

    • I have been teaching a coding course for a few years (mobile web html5, css, javascript).
      Very few people have an interest in coding, which is required to be a successful programmer. Just doing it for the sake of a job is a guarantee to end up with no job.
      Of those who are interested, only a minority are actually smart enough.
      I’m afraid your exceptional story proves the general state of reality.
      The power of computer and automation is shrinking the job market for manual-labor jobs. Utopian dreams will not change that sad fact. I wish there was a simple solution, but “teaching everyone code” is facepalm-stuff.

  14. Glad to hear the clarification that Bloomberg wasn’t demeaning the abilities of coal miners, rather pointing out that coal-miner-to-software-developer is not a logical or easy career transition. Last month, I helped teach an iPhone App Development workshop in Pikeville, Kentucky (smack in the middle of Appalachian coal mining country), and our group of participants excelled at learning Objective-C and mobile app development fundamentals.

    I agree that simply teaching people to code ignores larger challenges: structural changes in a local economy, fostering a culture of entrepreneurship, and connections to global clients for software products and services.

    That being said, if any coal miners want to learn to code, come to Lexington, KY and we’ll make it happen!

  15. My husband is a Union coal miner and I take offence to people assuming that all coal miners are uneducated or that they would have to be uneducated to work in a coal mines, granted many never went to college but most mines require a high school diploma for employment,a Union coal miner makes 90,000-98,000 a yr plus great benifits ..that can not be replaced in this economy, kill these great paying jobs with what….minimum wage jobs

    • archonic

      “that can not be replaced in this economy, kill these great paying jobs with what….minimum wage jobs”

      Honestly, yes. If a min wage job is all he can land, then take it while keeping an eye out for something better. Woe is you for suffering like the rest of us… christ.

    • I think Bloomberg made an over generalized poorly worded statement. I understand the point he was trying to make but it was insensitive and derogatory.
      I have been a professional Code Jockey for over 20 years now. I believe anyone, who is willing to learn, “can” be taught to code. It is simple logic. If I touch my finger the range element while it is on, I will get burned. Logic. There are some protocols to follow for safety and good practices, but that comes with any job. As a coal miner I would assume there is logic, protocols, and safety procedures.
      I have worked with several very educated people who absolutely hated to code and would have rather been a fry cook at a fast food place than to spend another hour with code. I don’t have a degree in programming. I don’t even have a degree. I feel it is about passion. If you don’t have a passion for coding, a mediocre coder is the best you can hope for. I have also worked with people who enjoyed coding but were horrible at it because they were careless.
      The next issue is the money. That is going to depend on the area and the supply/demand of good coders. Mediocre coders make mediocre money.

  16. Jorge Eduardo Ardila

    Learn to code, then give your work as free, because heavy cashed startups are doing so: giving software for free. So who is going to pay the myriad of coders trying to make a life, while tech giants give free software?

  17. Teryl Todd

    Many here seem to thing that a coal miner can transition his/her skill into some other part of the “power industry”, this is not so easy. The power industry, no matter what the power source is becoming extremely technical. I’m not saying we can’t teach people to run a power production plant, but it would be no different than teaching that person to code.

  18. archonic

    This misplaced compassion and I don’t see how it makes for an article. No one is expecting coal miners to build a new career as coders. They can move to other mining industries, of which there are many. They may have to relocate, which is where sympathies should be directed – not to their technology literacy.

  19. Takeshi Young

    Coal mining or mining of any kind is a dying industry. These jobs will be largely done by machines within the next few decades.

    Technology, in the meantime, is a growth industry. Not everyone needs to become a programmer, but everyone should have an understanding of technology and how to use it, or they are going to get left behind in the new economy.

    And Bloomberg’s suggestion of subsidies for displaced workers is sillier than trying to teach everyone to code. That’s a bandaid solution that’s not going to help longterm. At least coding is a practical skill for which there currently exists more demand than supply.

    • micky


      Mining is largely done by machines already, the difference is that they need humans to run them.

      It is all very well thinking some kind of Google autonomous car programme can operate these machines, however Google cars operate in 2D space I.e. they don’t have to worry about the road suddenly not being connected to the ground anymore.

      Mining is based on 3D geology which is based on pretty sophisticated geostatistical “guesswork” derived from drilling a few holes and trying to infer reality as to whether or not there might be something there to be mined.

      There will always be a need for a human to control a mining machine as it needs to be corrected when the machine starts to mine waste rock as opposed to ore.

      In the coal mining universe this can be quantified as coal is black and waste rock is usually brown, but if you are mining gold (at a so-called cutoff grades of 1 gram per tonne i.e. a dilution factor of 1 in 1,000,000 you cannot determine what is ore (1.1 g/t) and what is waste (0.9 g/t) without some sort of geological input – and that needs a human !



  20. Appeos

    Literally teaching everyone to code is a silly aim anyway. Even so, I’m sure a good number of coal miners could be taught, if they were motivated.

    In the end, coding will become less necessary, as tools become more sophisticated, so this whole “teach everyone to code and it’ll save the world” mantra is a total red herring.

    There are a number of startups, including mine, which allow anyone to create extremely sophisticated business applications, without the need for coding or teams of developers, etc. This seems likely to be better future than teaching everyone to code, IMHO, although of course YMMV.

  21. snuggles

    I always thought the approach of “teaching everyone to code” won’t solve the world’s issues, so I find myself in the weird position of supporting what ElBloombito says. Not everyone needs to learn to code or wants to learn to code. It’s a rather myopic view. I think in this case (the transition of “dirty energy” workers to “clean energy” workers), what are the general skills we can use to transition into a new career and, more importantly, not have these folks out of work for an extended period of time while they move into a new skillset.

  22. realjjj

    lol that’s a rather harsh insult from Bloomberg, calling coal miners too stupid to code at all.
    The problem mentioned here is minor and nothing new ,there are always shifts like that.
    Anyway, the world evolves, a lot of jobs become irrelevant an the change is likely to accelerate in a very substantial way Robots ( this includes autonomous cars displacing drivers) , computers, 3D printing will likely kill almost all jobs in 3 to 5 decades.
    And lets not forget high school graduation rates in major US cities NYC was at 54% in 2010 and overall the US is maybe at 75%. Seems like a far bigger issue than coal mining loosing steam.Jobs will keep going away and a huge % of the population has little education.

    • Like I said in the article, I think he meant it more as a slight to the tech industry — as their suggestions that teaching everyone to code will solve the realities of shifting economies — rather than an insult saying coal miners are too stupid to code. Its not a realistic way to solve the lost coal jobs to turn them all into coders.

      • Slayerwulfe

        i like that you stated your position, but Bloomberg is a dinosaur and it’s relative to our educational system (not tech companies) that do not teach c++ PQCC coco/R etc.because there is no one present qualified to do it. cdc compiler, compiler/compiler, parser, is all a self learning experience. coal mining is profitable for the owners of mines that influence political decisions and alternative energy is not. progress is slow because we have to wait for the influence to die off before we can move on.

      • Zak Edward Dolan

        Teach people skills that are in demand, and that suit their aptitudes and interests.

        Welding, Nursing, Coding. Plenty of different choices for skilled work in high paying fields. Yes, not everyone will enjoy coding, but that is not the only option.

        Like working with your hands, doing physical labor without too much brain power? Learn to weld. There’s currently a shortage of skilled welders (lots of jobs) and the pay is as good or better than coal mining.

        Like working with people and helping people? Nursing might be the field for you. As the population ages and diabetes becomes rampant, we will need more nurses to care for everyone. Plenty of jobs, and they have good pay. Almost every part of the country needs nurses, so if you want a certain location, this could be the job for you.

        Want to work from home and telecommute? Want to work with your mind and not have to interact with people all that much? Coding could be the job for you. Huge salaries for top performers, too.

        Saying that not all coal miners can be retrained as coders does not really add much to the discussion. As we’ve seen from the television show “Undercover Boss”, not all CEO’s can be retrained as front line workers. So what? There are other jobs that better suit them and that are in demand. Same with coal miners.

    • You’re the only one using the word “stupid”. Or are you so divorced from the cumulative realities of life in coal country to believe you just flip a switch and magically offer extension courses in coding – and decades of non-technical education, class structures mandating manual labor as the best shot at income, the whole disaster of decades of economic monoculture just vanish?

      Incidentally, I don’t think you’re stupid either. Just as ignorant as the average Ayn Rand acolyte.

    • Kelvin Dudus Black

      have you forgotten that 3d printers are also assembled? Who does that? did they have a job before the 3d printer? Do they now have one?

  23. Albert Hartman

    Maybe coal workers – longtime atom pushers – won’t transition easily into coders – bit pushers. But they can still participate in their longtime professions of energy, and continue pushing atoms. They’ll just have to move into coal’s successors – the electrical energy grid driven by cleantech sources like solar. The country is rewiring for a newer generation of energy technology, and they can still participate.

    • coder543

      Exactly. Reducing the coal mining industry doesn’t mean removing jobs, it just means moving jobs around a little. The energy industry will always need workers, at least, for the foreseeable future.

      However, I would argue that Bloomberg is wrong. You *can* teach a coal miner to code. Not all programming is esoteric and difficult, and programming skills apply in job areas all over the planet, not just silicon valley, and not just dedicated programming jobs. Anyone using Excel all day long could benefit from knowing how to write macros that will accelerate their work, and they would therefore be more valuable to companies looking to hire.

      • Not exactly true. The newer energy plants coming online will be much more efficient than plants built 20 years ago. More efficient == less jobs because of automation. It also means higher level skill requirements. They may not need to be coders but they will need to be effective tech workers who integrate technology innovations into their daily tool chest of capabilities. Efficiency is really the biggest issue we have in this country in terms of squeezing out jobs.