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Agency trying to increase telework jobs in Eastern Kentucky as coal slumps

From left, Jeannie Gray, Marion Johnson and Carla Gabbard work on computer and customer-service skills at the Teleworks USA training hub in Annville, Ky., on March 9, 2016. The three hope to get jobs working from home for companies such as U-Haul, which has hired several other people from the program to take reservations.
From left, Jeannie Gray, Marion Johnson and Carla Gabbard work on computer and customer-service skills at the Teleworks USA training hub in Annville, Ky., on March 9, 2016. The three hope to get jobs working from home for companies such as U-Haul, which has hired several other people from the program to take reservations. bestep@herald-leader.com

When people call from the U.S. or Canada to rent a U-Haul trailer, one representative they reach is Mary Kibbey, working from the small office at her house in the hills of rural Owsley County.

Kibbey, 50, is part of a growing effort to recruit telework jobs to Eastern Kentucky as the region tries to revive its economy.

A deep slump in the coal industry has wiped out thousands of jobs since 2012, and some counties have lost manufacturing plants.

Kibbey said she looked for jobs close to home, but in one of the poorest counties in the nation, there was little available until she heard of the chance to train for a telework job.

Answering calls for U-Haul allows her to stay home, where she can be close to a son who has health problems, and avoid the time and expense of driving an hour or more for work in other towns, as many residents do.

“I can take care of my kids and be home and make a living,” Kibbey said.

Kibbey found the job through Teleworks USA, which is a program of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, or EKCEP.

The agency is based in Hazard and serves 23 counties. EKCEP started Teleworks USA in an effort to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky.

Road access and transportation costs have been barriers to some economic development in the region, but digital work negates those issues.

Teleworks USA employees train people in computer and customer-service skills during a course that lasts from three to four weeks, and also helps them polish résumés and get ready to interview for jobs.

The trainees receive several certifications covering customer service and sales, digital literacy and work ethic, which boosts their value to potential employers, said Betty Hays, operations manager for Teleworks USA.

“They’re getting someone who knows what they’re doing. They’re trainable, they’re intelligent and they’re willing to work,” Hays said.

The agency recruits companies to take a look at applicants from Eastern Kentucky and checks to make sure the positions are legitimate, said Michael Cornett, head of Teleworks USA.

213 The number of people who got jobs through the Teleworks USA program in 2015.

Cornett said 213 people got jobs through the program in 2015.

Some of those people got jobs directly through the program’s online job board, which has hundreds of listings, but most went through training at Teleworks USA centers in Annville and Hazard.

The program is using a $200,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to equip hubs set to open soon in Harlan and Beattyville.

Teleworks USA provides equipment and staff at the hubs, but communities must provide a space and pay for utilities and Internet service.

Officials in other cities have expressed interest in having a teleworks hub, including Booneville and Inez, Cornett said.

Most of the new Teleworks USA jobs in 2015 came through the hub in Annville. An initiative of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative was one key reason.

The co-op, which serves Jackson and Owsley counties, put together $50 million in grant and loan financing to lay fiber-optic lines throughout its territory, said Keith Gabbard, the general manager.

That means every home and business in those counties has access to Internet speeds of up to one gigabit per second, or 1,000 megabytes per second, Gabbard said.

The average speed in the U.S. in early 2015 was 11.7 megabytes per second, according to a company called Akamai that tracks Internet speeds.

“We saw this as a way to actually give (the counties) an advantage” in economic development, Gabbard said of the gigabit project.

This is an excellent opportunity for me to make a living and not have to leave.

Mary Kibbey, who works from her home in rural Owsley County

There are other places in Eastern Kentucky where fast Internet service is available. But there also are spots where residents wouldn’t be able to do some telework jobs because of slow Internet service, underscoring the need to improve connectivity, Cornett said.

“It’s critical for better Internet speeds to make their way throughout Eastern Kentucky on a more comprehensive scale,” he said.

There is an effort underway called KentuckyWired to make broadband Internet service available throughout Eastern Kentucky by installing a fiber-optic connection point in each county. However, a provider would still have to extend the service countywide from the access point for every home to have access to broadband.

Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, who has studied the rise of work-from-home jobs, said the Teleworks USA program is a “very creative idea” to try to bring more jobs to a rural area.

It’s also in line with the trend of more people working at least part of the time from home.

The number of people doing regular work at home has grown by 103 percent since 2005 among those who were not self-employed, according to a company called Global Workplace Analytics.

Many of the entry-level jobs available through Teleworks USA, such as taking and entering reservations and sales orders, pay only a little above minimum wage. But the jobs allow people to stay where they want to live, and many consider $9 or $10 an hour a good wage, Hays said.

“We can manage pretty well on that,” Hays said.

Brenda Alleshouse, 55, of Annville, said she makes more money taking customer-service calls for U-Haul than she did in a prior job as a bus driver for a community transit service.

Not having to buy gas and food away from home adds to her bottom line, she said.

“I’d say there’s a significant savings there each week,” Alleshouse said.

The people who have gotten jobs as U-Haul employees make well above minimum wage.

Sara Nunn said she makes $8.25 an hour taking calls for the moving company, but also gets a commission for each reservation.

Nunn, who is from Jackson County, estimated she consistently makes $16 an hour, fitting her work time around classes at Eastern Kentucky University, where she is a freshman.

Nunn said she’s well-satisfied with the company and her earnings. She just bought a 2016 Honda HR-V.

“It’s helped me a lot,” she said of the job.

Kibbey said she was a truck driver for 15 years before she left the road after several deaths in her family. She’s been glad for the opportunity with U-Haul and hopes to stay with the company.

“This is an excellent opportunity for me to make a living and not have to leave,” she said.

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