John Ray of Martin County worked in coal mines nearly 10 years before the company told him he would be laid off.
He worked his last 60 days then began looking for another job, but “nobody was really optimistic,” Ray said.
A couple months later, he talked with Kathy Walker, director of the HAAS eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute, a new training center in Paintsville that aims to attract employers to a region reeling from coal job losses by training their future employees.
“It’s a big relief,” said Ray, who was part of the institute’s pilot class in 2016 and now works for the CSX Transportation railroad company as a machinist. “Before we ever graduated from the class we already had jobs.”
Coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have dropped by more than 70 percent since 2011, causing the region’s unemployment rate to jump significantly.
The 10 Kentucky counties with the highest unemployment rates in December were all in Eastern Kentucky, with Magoffin County topping the chart at 12.4 percent, according to data from the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. The state average was 3.7 percent.
“Our overarching goal here is to re-train our workforce to attract manufacturing,” Walker said. “We must diversify. I think in my lifetime mining will always continue, and it’s a great industry, but in order to retain people here we have to create some options for them.”
The institute, which began its first official class in November, is one of several projects officials hope will stimulate the region’s economy.
Others include EnerBlü Inc., which announced plans in December to build a $372 million battery factory in Pikeville that is supposed to hire 300 people initially and could grow to 875 workers after four years, and AppHarvest, which plans to employ 140 people at a large greenhouse in Pikeville.
Many of the students in Paintsville have accumulated skills through previous employment that translate well into advanced manufacturing, said Ryan Barber, an electrician and current student.
Some worked in coal mines, others in the oil and gas industry. Others still learned about mechanics out of necessity and because “that’s kind of what our grandparents taught us,” Barber said.
“We didn’t have a whole lot here, so you know, if something breaks you’ve got to fix it,” Barber said. “The mechanical intuition is already there.”
Above all, Barber said, the students want to show employers what Eastern Kentucky has to offer: skilled workers with an inclination for problem solving and mechanical know-how.
“We want to be the best that we can be,” Barber said. “We’ve got a good basic foundation that you can build on.”
The institute got most of its initial funding from a $1.5 million grant from the Gene Haas Foundation, which funds manufacturing education programs, and a $2.5 million grant from the Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands, which gets funding through a federal program that collects a fee on every ton of coal produced nationwide. That money is distributed to the states, which use it to protect the public from health and safety problems caused by old mines and to fund community development projects.
The money helped remodel a building originally built by Midway College to house a pharmacy school that never materialized. Now the 40,000 square-foot institute is outfitted with state-of-the-art classrooms, conference rooms and, most importantly, a warehouse-sized training center with machines used to create metal parts and tools.
At the institute’s grand opening ceremony last month, Gov. Matt Bevin said he believes the institute will attract manufacturers to the region.
“While maybe manufacturing once was a different look and feel, this is it,” Bevin said, pointing to the students working behind him. “This is what it looks like as you look into the 21st century.”
The institute also plans to partner with the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, a public-private partnership led by Carnegie Mellon University that helps manufacturers use robotics.
“It’s just a matter of time before this community becomes a hub,” Bevin said.
Most of the institute’s first graduates will either have to relocate or commute to jobs outside the region, Walker said, but she hopes companies will soon set up shop in Eastern Kentucky to utilize the skilled workers who want to stay.
“I have the workforce, they have the jobs,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Another graduate from the pilot program, Justin Cornett, now works in the aerospace industry at LockHeed Martin near Lexington.
“I have the option to go anywhere in the United States to get a job,” Cornett said.
Even if people must move away for work initially, Cornett thinks many of them will come back with years of experience under their belts once jobs become available in Eastern Kentucky.
“The industry will come,” he said.
Jared Arnett, executive director for Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc., an organization aimed at promoting economic development in Eastern Kentucky, said the region has historically struggled to attract industry for a number of reasons, including lack of infrastructure and poor marketing of its industrial sites.
Many of those sites — former strip mines that span hundreds of acres — lie vacant and are not yet equipped with sufficient water, sewer or broadband systems, Arnett said.
The lack of an interstate in southeast Kentucky has also contributed to the problem, but Arnett said most manufacturers now care more about workforce quality than interstate access.
“We’re becoming more and more competitive,” Arnett said. “We’ve got 30,000 people who need to go to work who we don’t have jobs for.”
The institute’s first official class began in November with students aged 18 to 55. The 16-week program trains between 12 and 14 students for positions such as machinists and maintenance technicians. The first class graduates in two weeks.
The Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, which uses federal funding to help employers and workers navigate job opportunities, is spending $1.3 million over 16 months to pay for the institute’s operational expenses, including the students’ $11,000 tuition.
EKCEP Executive Director Jeff Whitehead said the organization plans to renew or restructure its contract with the institute when it expires this summer. Long term, Walker said she hopes private companies will help finance the institute and cover tuition costs for students they want to hire.
John Laney, the institute’s assistant director, said the program has created hope for people who want to exchange the uncertainty of mining with a stable, well-paying job.
“The guys in this class now, it’s already changed their lives,” Laney said.