HAZARD — With snow falling outside at times, John Sturgill joined nearly 300 laid-off Eastern Kentucky coal miners at a job fair last Wednesday for a company planning to hire about 40 people.
The 32-year-old father of three was laid off in April last year from a mine in Letcher County, where he lives. He found a job at a mine in West Virginia, staying there to work through the week and coming home on weekends, but it ran out in November.
The line to try for a job at R.J. Corman Railroad Group last week stretched down the hallway.
"There's so many people unemployed, fighting over so few jobs," Sturgill said.
That's the troubling reality in Eastern Kentucky these days.
Employment at coal mines and facilities in the region has plunged by about half — more than 7,000 jobs — in just 2½ years, leaving the fewest number of people with coal jobs in four generations.
The job fair Sturgill and others attended was the sixth hosted by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program through its program called Hiring Our Miners Everyday, or HOME.
The program has helped about 500 people find other jobs, and another 500 get into job training or internships, according to Michael Cornett, a spokesman. But the companies that have come to the job fairs shed light on the difficulty of finding work for laid-off miners close to home.
Nearly all were from outside the area, including Toyota in Georgetown and Patriot Coal Company's Highland mine in Western Kentucky.
Patriot has hired 120 miners who had been laid off in Eastern Kentucky, illustrating the relative health of the state's two coalfields.
"There ain't nothing around here," said Jimmy McIntyre, a Letcher County miner who attended the Corman job fair.
McIntyre, 34, moved home to Letcher County eight years ago from Florida, where he had built and remodeled houses.
The coal industry was picking up, and he got a job at an underground mine. He worked steadily and was making more than $30 an hour in August 2012 when the bottom dropped out of coal in Eastern Kentucky and he was laid off.
He put in scores of applications in Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee and other nearby places while he had unemployment checks coming in, McIntyre said. When those ran out at the end of the year, however, he re-started his contracting business in Jacksonville and has been traveling back and forth.
He would like to stay in Letcher County, but he didn't get a callback from Corman. So with a baby girl due to be born this week and the market in Florida picking up, he plans to move his family south to join him after school is out.
"They's a lot more opportunity, a lot more going on down there," he said. "You gotta work when it's there."
Officials in Eastern Kentucky are concerned the coal downturn will force more people to move for work, eroding school enrollment, the retail base and property values.
Unemployment payments don't match mining salaries, but helped cushion the shock of the downturn for awhile. However, that aid is drying up for many former miners because Congress has not approved extensions this year for long-term unemployed people.
"That's increased the level of desperation, I'm sure," said Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.
A total of 294 people registered at the R.J. Corman job fair last week, the most of any of the program's six events aimed at connecting miners with jobs.
One reason was that people wouldn't have to move to take many of the jobs Corman is trying to fill — a major plus for laid-off miners who couldn't easily sell their houses in an ailing economy.
Corman was looking for heavy equipment operators, laborers and mechanics — jobs requiring skills that match those of many miners.
If the railroad-services company hires enough workers around Hazard, it could supply a van to transport them from their home area to work sites, said Tony Shouse, an employment specialist with Corman.
"We've got a lot of good qualified candidates up here," Shouse said.
Struggle and hope
Many people are optimistic about an initiative aimed at boosting and diversifying the economy of the state's eastern coalfield, called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, but any significant fruit from the effort is likely years away.
Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers started the initiative.
A December summit in Pikeville drew an estimated 1,500 people who discussed hundreds of ideas for developing the region, and Beshear and Rogers later announced plans to improve high-speed Internet service in Eastern Kentucky and finish widening all of the Mountain Parkway to four lanes.
Beshear said Friday that he and Rogers expect to have an announcement within weeks on a structure of working groups and leaders "which will carry out the SOAR mission over the months and years to come."
Beshear included $400,000 in his proposed state budget to pay for continued meetings, economic studies and other work on the initiative.
Frank Dixon, a Harlan County man who worked as a mechanic at a coal mine, said he hopes — and prays — that the initiative helps the region, but he knows it won't bring a quick turnaround.
"It's not gonna help us, not for a long time," said Dixon, 51.
Dixon said he grossed $96,000 in 2012 before he was laid off that December. His last unemployment extension ran out a year later; now he hopes to get by doing odd jobs for members of his church.
"The Lord told me that he would take care of me. I have faith in that," Dixon said.
David Freyer of Harlan County, who was laid off in September 2012 from his job as a purchasing agent with a coal company, is working part-time at a tobacco store.
At age 61, he has rolled his 401(k) savings into another account and is borrowing against it to make his house payment. He has applied for many other jobs and routinely asks coal-company employees who come through the store about the potential for a job.
"I've not had any success," said Freyer. "I'm still struggling to keep my house payment made."
'It's a tough time'
The coal downturn has spread through the regional economy.
Aimee Blanton, president of the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce, said businesses have closed or seen sales fall because laid-off miners and their families have had to cut spending.
Blanton's building-supply business, Southern Wholesale, has suffered because people aren't building or remodeling homes, which also means less work for bankers, contractors, landscapers and others.
"Everyone's business is down," Blanton said.
Meanwhile, there has been an increase in the number of people getting food baskets from the Trinity Lighthouse Pentecostal Mission Center in Bell County, said volunteer Carolyn Lawson.
She has seen mining families come through, but it seems many don't come back, she said, perhaps because they are ashamed.
"People are in terrible shape," Lawson said.
Food-stamp use in some Eastern Kentucky counties was higher in December 2013 than a year earlier, according to figures from the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
The average number of participants in Letcher County throughout 2012, for instance, was 7,586, but the December 2013 number was 8,041.
In Knott County, the number went from a 2012 average of 5,526 to 5,850 in December 2013.
In addition to other problems, the downturn has sapped the county's revenue from a tax on mining by more than half, said Knott County Judge-Executive Zach Weinberg.
Replacing a way of life
Many former coal-industry workers are going to have to look at re-inventing themselves just as the region must transform its economy, said Whitehead of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.
"Every individual is a microcosm of what this region needs to do," he said.
Whitehead went to an event at the White House in January with Chris Sexton, a former coal miner from Letcher County who went back to school with help from the HOME program after being laid off in 2012.
Sexton enrolled in paramedic classes and works for the ambulance service in Perry County.
Whitehead said he got to talk to Vice President Joe Biden at the event, and Biden hit on the challenge facing the region.
"You're not replacing jobs. You're replacing a way of life," Whitehead said the vice president told him.
That transformation will take time and hard work.
In the meantime, "I need immediate employment," said Sturgill, the miner laid off twice last year.
Sturgill said his father worked at surface mines for 35 years and never had to travel more than 30 minutes from home, but he has chased jobs much farther from home without success.
There are few decent jobs in the region outside health care, Sturgill said, and he feels he can't afford to go back to school to learn a new career.
Sturgill sold belongings after losing his job and had to go on Medicaid. If the R.J. Corman job doesn't come through, he will probably have to move.
"There's no recovery in sight" for the region, he said.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1