When Misery Turns Into A Mission

norbert-dudas-Transfăgărășan, Romania-562700-unsplash
Norbert Dudas

For more than 150 years, the Romanian Jiu Valley had one industry only: mining. Almost everybody who lived here in southern Transylvania worked in one of the valley’s 15 coal mines. And their fathers and grandfathers had probably worked in the mines, too. Laurentiu Bunescu experienced this decline of an entire region up close and personal and turned misery into a mission.

Under the Communist regime, coal was the driving force of the Romanian economy; hundreds of thousands of miners worked underground, with temperatures sometimes rising to 50 degrees Celsius. The work was hard and dangerous but respected and relatively well-paid. This changed after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime in 1990. Romanian coal was no longer competitive on the global market, and many mines had to close. Tens of thousands of miners lost their jobs and their families their livelihoods. 


BMW Foundation European Table

Laurentiu Bunescu was invited to the first European Table, which took place in Tallinn, Estonia. Participants discussed whether digitization can serve as a growth and job engine for Europe - for global digitization is leading to far-reaching changes in many areas fpr social life and work.

“My father was a miner,” says the 35-year-old Laurentiu Bunescu from Lupeni, one of the mining towns in the Jiu Valley.

Bunescu had just begun to study economics, when his father was laid off in 2005.

The parents of several of his friends, too, lost their jobs.

Most of them were over 45 and had worked their whole lives in the mines or for the mining companies. What should they do now?

They had no idea of the modern work world, many did not know how to work with computers, had never sent an e-mail or used word processing.

Abandoned Cetate Mine in Romania Rene Zieger/ OSTKREUZ

Bunescu had an idea: “I had been playing with computers since when I was a child, as had many of my friends. We decided to pass on this knowledge to our parents and the former miners.”

He asked around and found out that there was a “telecentre” in Timisoara, a nonprofit organization offering digital training for unemployed men and women. Together with some friends, he founded a telecentre in Lupeni.

They approached companies such as Microsoft and asked them to donate PCs and software. It turned out that they received enough computers to conduct several free IT courses a week for unemployed miners.

“It was so satisfying to help them,” Bunescu recalls. “There was a clear trigger, a problem you could fix, there was no other chance for them.”

“I had been playing with computers since when I was a child, as had many of my friends. We decided to pass on this knowledge to our parents and the former miners.”

Laurentiu Bunescu

For three years, Bunescu was in charge of the telecentre while also studying full-time. He raised funds and donations, and he organized and designed the courses. During that time, more than 2,000 former miners attended the telecentre; hundreds of them received an official Microsoft certificate for having passed the course.

“Such a certificate generally helps you find a job in Romania very quickly,” says Bunescu.

Through his work for the nonprofit, Bunescu also got to know the other telecentres in Romania. By 2008, there were more than forty of these nonprofits nationwide. The staffs of the different organizations started to share and pool their experiences. 

“We realized that we had to deal with similar things, such as, for example, funding, and that we could learn from each other,” says Bunescu.

“Much was improvised, we did not have many funds, but it was a very creative and inspiring time.”
Laurentiu Bunescu

The Romanian telecentres founded an umbrella organization to increase their visibility. At a conference in Barcelona, Bunescu got to know other nonprofits from across Europe that also worked on the digital inclusion of citizens who risked falling behind as a result of digitization.

They decided to expand the nonprofit network to the EU. Bunescu, then 25, assumed the leadership of this informal network. “Much was improvised, we did not have many funds, but it was a very creative and inspiring time,” he recalls the spirit of optimism at the time.

Laurentiu Bunescu Marc Beckmann/OSTKREUZ

In 2017, the loose federation of European telecentres became an official organization called All Digital, based in Brussels. Today, All Digital is one of the major European associations of non-formal education providers and organizations delivering digital skills, with almost 60 members representing 25,000 digital competence centers across Europe.

“We’re facing a digital transformation that affects every single person and industry. My purpose today is to support local initiatives and digital competence centers to achieve more impact – by ensuring proper support and engagement from the European institutions and from other stakeholders,” says Bunesco, CEO of All Digital.

Europe boasts almost 2,000 initiatives such as All Digital that focus on digital social innovation and on the use of digital technologies to tackle social challenges in fields such as education, health care, and the environment.

The English-speaking platform yourock.jobs, for example, is a special kind of job network – a kind of LinkedIn that helps young people discover their hidden work skills.

The Brussels-based initiative Capital Digital teaches programming to children and youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially young migrants. There, they playfully learn skills that will also help them in their jobs and thus boost their self-confidence.

A digital version of neighborly help is provided by the Estonian website Helpific. In an easy and unbureaucratic manner, it brings together people who need help with volunteers who want to help. For example, blind people can ask for somebody to help them do their shopping.

For Bunescu, all of these are examples of how digitization can help people if it is used properly. “Our vision is that every European is ready to benefit from the digital transformation,” he says. All Digital thus works to increase the visibility and impact of these small organizations:

The most important thing is: How do we help those organizations to scale up, to be more visible?”
Laurentiu Bunescu

Even though he now lives in Brussels, Laurentiu Bunescu regularly visits his hometown.

The telecentre in Lupeni, which he co-founded, is still around – and still in demand: By now, the number of miners in the region has dropped to 3,500. Still, Bunescu believes that the structural transformation will be successful: “I believe in that region, it still has a lot of potential,” he says.

And his optimism is well-founded: Some of the miners he helped retrain now work as self-employed IT consultants.


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