Kentucky ex-miner retraining program finds success

OREANDA-NEWS. August 22, 2016. Coal mining has always been a cyclical profession. But a consensus has developed within the industry that few jobs lost in the most recent downturn are likely to return.

This has left thousands of out-of-work miners with unclear futures in regions where generations have depended upon coal jobs. But amid the uncertainty, one worker retraining program in eastern Kentucky has seen some success in helping ex-miners find a path forward — albeit oftentimes at lower wages.

The Hiring Our Miners Everyday (HOME) program has enrolled more than 3,000 laid-off workers and their spouses since 2013, according to a study released this week by the Cleveland Federal Reserve. More than 1,100 have secured new jobs, and 1,449 have received support as they train for new careers.

When HOME started, "we were having a precipitous drop in employment" in the state, Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett said. "Eastern Kentucky was kind of ground zero for the downturn in our industry."

There were 15,000 coal mining jobs in 2000. By 2014, there were just 7,000 left. More jobs have been lost since then, as the broader coal market has continued to deteriorate.

These layoffs are "a big problem for the region," said Cleveland Federal Reserve regional community development adviser Kyle Fee, who co-wrote the study on the success of HOME. "We have already seen tax revenues related to spending in general decline significantly. There is going to be less money circulating in the local economy."

The Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program launched HOME as a response to these worsening conditions, beginning with a \\$5.1mn Department of Labor grant in 2013. Eventually, the program received an additional \\$8.9mn in federal dollars.

"As someone who is very critical of our federal government right now, it is nice to see an organization like HOME maximize that federal funding," Bissett said. A lot of success of the program stems from "eastern Kentuckians helping eastern Kentuckians" — people who know the culture and rhythms of the region.

The Kentucky Coal Association assists HOME by connecting companies to the program as soon as they announce layoffs so that the affected miners can be entered into HOME's database.

The employment program then works with local partners to connect HOME participants to job opportunities, as well as provide funds for education and workforce training. This includes covering the cost of tuition, supplies and tools at local community college programs, and encouraging local employers to hire ex-miners by covering significant portions of on-the-job training wages.

One major roadblock has been the lack of other job opportunities in the region, an issue that the employment program is attempting to address by promoting capital investment in the region. But some ex-miners may have to move to find new careers, which means "overcoming the resistance to relocation," Bissett said. "As an Appalachian, we like to live near our home the best we can."

Beyond personal preference, many miners simply are not able to break even selling their houses because of the weak local economy, another deterrent to uprooting.

Some HOME participants have found a way to have the best of both worlds. A 10-week electrical lineman training course has been one of the most successful HOME programs, and many graduates end up traveling for work during the week and coming home to eastern Kentucky on weekends.

But while lineman wages average \\$20/hr – one of the better gigs you can get in the region – such a salary pales in comparison with the average \\$72,000/yr many of these miners were making before getting laid off. This means that many one-income household must become two-income families in order to maintain the same living standards, which is why HOME includes spouses in the program.

There is also an emotional component to the transition for many HOME participants.

"The biggest difficulty is putting yourself in the coal miner position, which is you have done this your entire life, it pays reasonably well," Fee said. HOME works to help miners understand that unlike previous downturns, the jobs are not coming back and "you are going to have to change careers and move forward."

With job retraining, this change may be a little easier.