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Michael Bloomberg: You Can't Teach a Coal Miner To Code 581

theodp (442580) writes "Gigaom reports that while speaking at the Bloomberg Energy Summit on Wednesday, former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he gives 'a lot of money to the Sierra Club' to help close dirty coal plants, but added 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 retraining 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,' argued Bloomberg. 'Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them to code and everything will be great. I don't know how to break it to you... but no.'"
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Michael Bloomberg: You Can't Teach a Coal Miner To Code

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  • He's right! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2014 @11:42AM (#46725815)

    Coding is not for everyone, and simply putting everyone into tech-training is not the answer (it will just create another problem).

  • by eyepeepackets ( 33477 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @11:43AM (#46725817)

    ...requires foundations laid down in the 5th and 6th grade of school, mostly math, but also the interest and desire to learn. Some people get it, some don't get it. So it's more accurate to say that some coal miners may be able to learn to code: Watch out for those blanket generalizations, they bite back.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @11:47AM (#46725879) Homepage

    I don't think anybody is saying "there is no coal miner on the planet you can teach to code".

    What they're saying is "do not count on training all coal miners to write code and expect that to work".

    Zuckerschmuck saying "teach them to code and everything will be great", then he really is clueless and out of touch. But, we knew that anyway.

  • by invictusvoyd ( 3546069 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @11:54AM (#46725997)
    Possible . With a lot of effort a team of bright minds could teach hulk hogan to do some java . But then , who's gonna fight the undertaker??
  • by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:05PM (#46726167) Homepage Journal

    The statement is about a solution for a group. The simple truth is that your not going to solve the problem of unemployment in West Virginia if you stop all coal mining by trying to teach the coal miners to code. A few might but it will not be a solution.
    The real truth is that if you do shut down the coal mines "not going to happen" you will have massive unemployment. Towns will become ghost towns, people will move away, schools will close, people will default on their homes, and businesses will shut down.
    The only way to prevent this would be for new jobs to move in exactly as the mines shut down. You would need to get companies to put in manufacturing or some other kind of mining in sync with shutting down the mines. Good luck with that.

    That is one reason I am really disappointed with Motorola being sold off, I was hopping that it would be a new start to manufacturing in the US. I would also love to see the US Gov do more to help the General Aviation industry. Most GA planes where made in the US and support a lot of really good paying jobs at FBOs and small airports across the country. Think of General Aviation as a good way to take money from the upper class and spread to to the middle class.

    The coal mines will not shut down because they have the political perfect storm as a tool. The coal mines are usually in states with republican reps. The miners are in unions so they have the democrats that are pro union to support them. So both parties will support coal for a very long time.

  • by Warbothong ( 905464 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:09PM (#46726203) Homepage

    Zuckerschmuck saying "teach them to code and everything will be great", then he really is clueless and out of touch. But, we knew that anyway.

    More likely is that Zuckerberg, being at the top of an established pyramid, would love to see a huge influx of programmers into the job market.

    Wages would come down, saving money for all established players. Average quality would also come down, making it more difficult for startups to disrupt the status quo.

    It's the same as all this visa and lack-of-STEM nonsense.

  • Re:Right! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:12PM (#46726253)

    If 'custodial engineers' were to drop everything and become programmers, who'd do the dirty work that they do?

    Nobody is talking about re-training people that are usefully employed. They are talking about re-training people whose jobs are disappearing. Robotics is advancing very rapidly. Jobs for unskilled people have been disappearing for decades, but the past is nothing compared to the avalanche of disappearing jobs that may soon be coming. History shows that, in the long term, economies adjust and everyone benefits from productivity improvements. But the short term transition can be brutal.

    They are all great skills to know, but there's only so much mastery a person can obtain.

    The problem is that we have many millions of people with NO useful skills. They are also mostly untrainable, or they wouldn't have ended up skillless in the first place. In the past, our economy had a place for these people. The future is likely to be different.

  • Re:Right! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by BullInChina ( 3376331 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:19PM (#46726347)
    I'm pretty sure that you can't teach politicians to code either, they just don't have the intellectual capability to handle such a task.
  • Re:Right! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by noh8rz10 ( 2716597 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:20PM (#46726349)

    the problem with Zuck's thinking is that the logic goes like this:
    1) say "omg coal miners could learn to code!"
    2) expect coal miners to learn to code
    3) blame coal miners when they are out of work but did not become coders
    4) people on the government dole are lazy and shiftless! handouts! obama! socialism!

    It's a very convenient slippery slope for those looking for a way to back into #4.

  • Tradeoffs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:35PM (#46726515)

    It's the TOTAL number of high-paying jobs that's important, and people tend to gravitate to what they like.

    You seem to overlook the fact that if there are high paying jobs there must, by definition, be low paying jobs as well. Not everyone can have high paying jobs simultaneously anymore than everyone can have an above average IQ. In the long run economic growth can benefit everyone, rich and poor alike. In the short run however it is something close to a zero sum game. If you make one person wealthier you are making another poorer at least temporarily. If you have a larger pool of high paying jobs, in the short run you necessary are making the pot of money available to lower wages workers smaller.

    You might be able to implement policies that benefit most/all people in the long run but there will be some short term pain in the process.

    I could never imagine working nine to five on an auto assembly line, but that's what people did 50 years ago at GM, for $20 an hour before the cheap labor conservatives came along and crapped in the punch bowl.

    People get paid that much TODAY to work on some lines at GM. $20/hour is roughly $40K/year. Not exactly a huge salary in the US these days. There are plenty of assembly workers that get paid well in excess of $20/hour.

    Furthermore it isn't "cheap labor conservatives" that limit pay at the automakers. You could have had to most generous liberal management you could envision in charge of GM and Chrysler and they still would have gone bankrupt. What primarily limits direct labor pay is competition. Labor is a huge percentage of the cost of building vehicles. That means that production will gravitate towards locations with cheaper labor costs. Ford, GM and Chrysler in years past agreed to labor contracts that were simply not economically sustainable in the long run. When new competitors with lower labor costs entered the market, the Big Three were unable to adjust their cost structure to match. (Note, this isn't an anti-labor screed. Management shoulders a huge portion of the blame here) Labor costs had to come down and that ultimately meant some combination of lost jobs and lower pay rates. It was simply economic "physics" at work - a reversion to the mean.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:36PM (#46726523) Homepage

    If you teach someone to program, by definition they'll be a programmer.

    Not really. Not by a long shot.

    I can teach you to take a photograph, that doesn't make you a photographer.

    You can teach someone the concept of coding, and they might even make a couple of simple programs.

    That doesn't make you a 'programmer' any more than giving someone a driving lesson makes them a race car driver.

    I've encountered people who could, in some ways, write code. But since they didn't have the slightest idea of how to do it well or effectively, they were dangerous amateurs who believed they were programmers. We had one guy (lasted less than a month) who wrote garbage code like a first year student with no real understanding. Trying to make him understand the difference between what he wrote and what we needed was futile. I eventually walked away from him, told him he was useless, and stopped giving him tasks. My manager, upon seeing his code, went the next step and got rid of him

    Trust me. In practice, there is a very large difference between "knowing how to write some code 'n stuff" and actually being proficient at designing, writing, and maintaining software.

    Hell, I've know a few people with Masters degrees in CS who are actually terrible programmers. They can make something which kinda works for their area of research, but in general, they were useless.

    I even knew one guy who said he had a Masters in CS who had never coded before -- how that happened boggles my mind. That's like being a chemist who has never been in a lab.

  • Re:Right! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:41PM (#46726565)

    Hate to break it to you - most politicians are *very* smart. Arguably as much so if not more than most techies.

    The difference is in how they apply their intelligence. Politicians specialize in motivating people to follow a course of action of the politician's choosing. That is no mean feat and requires a great deal of intelligence and insight. It is a different discipline than say writing code, but it does require a high degree of intelligence to figure out how to manipulate other people.

    By way of contrast, most techies, while very good at figuring out technical problems, are often woefully inadequate when it comes to people/social issues. This is kind of the point of this article - that this naive belief on the part of techies that people can just arbitrarily change jobs, be "retrained" to do anything else - is completely unrealistic and doesn't actually work in reality. Techies often try to view the world in their terms and fail to understand that "their terms" are often a poor way of understanding the rest of the world. They then thumb their chests about how "stupid" everyone else is, how if only everyone could be "as smart" as they are everything would be so much better. What they fail to understand is that the world is as it is for very good reasons - that the world has been that way for millennia and will continue to be the same way - all for the very same, good reasons that shaped things that way to begin with.

  • Re:Right! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by xevioso ( 598654 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:49PM (#46726661)

    I think you are confusing wisdom for intelligence. Politicians tend to be very wise when it comes to understanding what makes people tick and how to get people to like them enough to vote for them.

    Then they get on Senate committees and blabber on about topics they have absolutely no business talking about because they are ignorant on the subject.

    The intelligent person knows when it's raining. The wise person knows to get in out of the rain.

  • Re:Right! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pla ( 258480 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:53PM (#46726703) Journal
    I'm pretty sure that you can't teach politicians to code either, they just don't have the intellectual capability to handle such a task.

    The bigger problem I see with teaching politicians to code comes from their comprehension of boolean logic. In computer science, we constantly evaluate the truth of various simple expressions. In politics, their entire career depends on their ability to obfuscate the truth of insanely complex issues in such a way as to make them look true (or false) based on the interest of their highest bidder. ;)

    More seriously, though, I have to agree with Bloomberg. Not everyone can code, and of those who have the raw capacity to learn it, many of them would hate actually doing it. Coding requires going into an almost trancelike state for hours at a time, sitting motionless while visualizing the flow of data through complex control structures and eventually interacting with some form of I/O. You try to stick a traditional manual laborer (I mean that in the good way - The kind of guy who enjoys nothing more than an honest day's hard work) into that seat for ten hours, and watch him slowly go crazy.
  • by noh8rz10 ( 2716597 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @12:58PM (#46726755)

    +1 snarky but insightful. there are a bunch of jobs that need to be done and we all have a role to play. I would suggest that Zuck focus his attention on the children of coal miners in rural areas, and help educate them for job opportunities (such as coding) that are not coal mining.

  • Re:Right! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by schnell ( 163007 ) <me AT schnell DOT net> on Friday April 11, 2014 @01:01PM (#46726787) Homepage

    The problem is that we have many millions of people with NO useful skills

    I think it's a little more accurate to say that we have millions of people with skills that were marketable when they started working but over their career lifetime those skills no longer became useful. I really do feel bad for these people because they didn't do anything "wrong" - the economy shifted under their feet and the profession that they expected to spend their lives in just happened to disappear. Imagine if tomorrow programming or IT became obsoleted - would you really want to start over from scratch in some other industry that you don't understand (or even like), especially if you're an old fogey like me? That's the harsh reality of what people have to do, but it doesn't make it any less painful.

    It's also not quite fair to say they are "mostly untrainable" but there is definitely a limited subset of things that you can be retrained for with a high school education and a professional lifetime spent in blue collar jobs. The US economy - like that of most advanced industrial nations - has shifted over the last several decades to outsourcing blue collar jobs and increasingly retaining onshore only "knowledge worker" and white collar roles. And many of these people are not educationally (or potentially mentally) suited to the jobs that are still here, which puts a premium on figuring out "what are the still extant jobs that they can be retrained for?" To Bloomberg's point, that is a hard question and the technology industry is not a panacea.

  • Re:Right! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by noh8rz10 ( 2716597 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @01:01PM (#46726789)

    I think you're assuming that there is only one type of intelligence. some people may have problem-solving skills but no emotional intelligence for how to work with and lead groups. If you have just one type of intelligence you shoudl consider yorself lucky for that and not make fun of those who are also intelligent but different.

  • Re:He's right! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by schlachter ( 862210 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @01:06PM (#46726855)

    Of course not all coal miners will want to be coders, but why can't you teach a coal miner to code? And why do people assume that coal miners are not interested in coding. And why do people assume they don't have the intellectual ability to handle it.

  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @01:37PM (#46727255) Journal

    But that's just it: Hulk Hogan was a skilled worker, a top-notch entertainer.

    People need to stop focusing on "tech". Unskilled jobs are going away, as are non-creative semi-skilled jobs. That doesn't mean the only alternative is "tech". There are many skilled jobs in the world, and many semi-skilled jobs requiring human creativity.

    A better way to state the question: half the population has sub-median intelligence. In a world of increasing automation, what jobs will there be? It doesn't take much to be a better job than mining coal: the bar is low here. But it won't be manual labor.

    I expect a swell in interpersonal service jobs. Unskilled (and non-creative semi-skilled) jobs that used to be only for servants of the rich have grown vastly in numbers as everyone else starts to able to hire the same: gardeners, maids, etc. But the same is stating to happen with creative semi-skilled jobs, and often without the class distinction spas and salons, decorators, drivers, personal shoppers, home theater installers, and so on. We're struggling to replace traditional roles with peer-to-peer roles for a lot of this (think Lyft).

    The nice thing is, you don't need to be above average, smarts-wise, to do a competent job at a lot of this stuff. You need to be interested, to care about getting it right, but that's different.

  • Re:Right! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Oligonicella ( 659917 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @01:55PM (#46727463)
    Allow me to substitute some words. Having technical skills doesn't necessarily mean that someone is smart, especially when it comes naturally to them. Someone without natural technical skills and are able to apply their intellect to gain them are very intelligent, however. But a lot of technicians out there don't have to think about it much. - And yes, it's nice. In both venues.
  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @02:18PM (#46727687) Journal

    Would you go to a spa and get a pedicure from a coal miner type of guy? Would you hire one as a personal shopper? With their personality

    Interesting stereotype there. You might be surprised by the reality.

    Your typical male factory workers, construction workers, truck drivers, etc. are not at all suited for interpersonal service jobs. So what are we going to do with them?

    Met many taxi drivers? Painters? Plumbers? Electricians? A/C repair guys? The guy you talk to to arrange and schedule the work needs to be somewhat personable. The guy who does the work, not so much.

    And a world where all the assholes starve to death? Not the worst possible world.

  • Re:He's right! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sjames ( 1099 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @02:19PM (#46727719) Homepage Journal

    Not everyone has a talent or even aptitude for coding. That's OK though, I've met plenty of coders who couldn't get through a single day of coal mining without hurting themselves and others.

  • by Phreakiture ( 547094 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @03:52PM (#46728669) Homepage

    Anyone working as a coal miner is so far past the "I'm willing to do jobs that suck" threshold that it has vanished over the horizon.

    Yep, but so, sometimes is the "Jobs that are available, that I can get to" threshold. I know a lot of people who are stuck in this type of mess because:

    • They were born in East Bumfuck, and
    • They were born poor because they live in East Bumfuck, and
    • They have no transportation because they are poor and
    • They can't commute far because they have no transportation and
    • The only job they can find that is within walking/biking/bumming a ride distance is the one they got.

    Pay close attention to that bumming a ride distance. If you are dependent on another family member for a lift to work, and you are poor, you know that one car that works (not counting the ones parked on the lawn) will break because they're poor and can't maintain it well. You're not going to go anywhere that that family member doesn't deem, and so, there you sit, another generation festering in the rot that is East Bumfuck

    I know it first hand because these folks are my in-laws. Some of them have escaped (very few, my wife being one), and some of them are going to, but mostly the opportunities just aren't there.

  • by FatLittleMonkey ( 1341387 ) on Friday April 11, 2014 @07:26PM (#46730305)

    focus his attention on the children of coal miners in rural areas, and help educate them for job opportunities (such as coding) that are not coal mining.

    Indeed. And one of the ways of doing that is not destroying their parents' livelihoods faster than society can adapt. Children of the long term unemployed (or underemployed) have a much lower chance of reaching an education level (and hence work) commensurate with their true capability. That reduces social mobility, resulting in multi-generational welfare dependency.

Truth is free, but information costs.