Hundreds flock to Pikeville job fair

PIKEVILLE — The line to get into the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center stretched around the block at 10 a.m. Friday.

It wasn't for a Toby Keith concert. It was for jobs.

By late in the day, more than 700 job-seekers had visited the tables of employers with more than 1,300 jobs to offer, according to organizers.

Amy Phillips of Pikeville works for SouthEast Telephone Company and was there looking for a better-paying job. Her husband, who had also been at the fair, was laid off three weeks ago from CAM Mining.

"When it comes down to the truck or the house, we've got to pick the house," said Phillips, saying they had stopped making the payment on her husband's truck when he was laid off. "It's a little bit tough to find a job right now."

One woman, Linda Moore, drove from Hurley, Va., 45 miles away, to attend the fair, looking to upgrade from a licensed practical nurse job to a registered nurse position.

"There are more (jobs) than I expected," she said. "You've just got to get out there."

Some would-be employees faced a distraction when the University of Kentucky press conference announcing basketball coach Billy Gillispie's firing was piped into the arena.

But Chris Rogers of Pikeville was hopeful the job fair would help him find an equipment operating position. He was laid off March 3 from CAM Mining and said he hadn't had much luck so far.

"It's tough all over," he said.

While rural unemployment is growing nationally, Pike County has not had the same level of job losses as some, officials said. Nobody's quite sure why, but they speculate it's the county's coal and natural gas resources.

The unemployment rate in the county is comparatively low — 5.7 percent for the county versus 8.7 percent for the state in January.

In most rural Kentucky counties, that's not the case. According to the Center for Rural Strategies, rural Kentucky counties overall had an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent in January.

The Pike County Works job fair was organized to showcase the jobs that are available. They included minimum-wage food service jobs and $75,000-a-year coal mining, medical or sales jobs.

"Here in Eastern Kentucky, our economy is slightly better than in other places," said Brad Hall, president and CEO of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce.

Employers often say that the obstacles to filling jobs in Eastern Kentucky include the prevalence of drugs and gaps in education. But one employment official said those presumptions don't hold water.

"Drugs are a cop-out answer," said David Knight, business service representative with JobSight, an employment agency in Pikeville that sponsored a career fair Feb. 28 that was attended by more than 200 people.

People use drugs and draw government checks because they can't find jobs that are economically practical, not the other way around, he said.

And potential employees are more likely to stop looking for jobs when long commutes or expensive training cut into their earning power, Knight said.

If local employers want to invest in a local work force, they need to make an effort to learn more about potential employees who are available, he said.

"There's a gap in understanding what employers want and what employees have," Knight said.

Job fair organizers said potential workers often don't seek employment because they buy the assumption that there are no jobs to be had.

"We have a strong work ethic here," said Danny VanHoose, chairman of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce. "People in Pike County want to work."

Melissa Mullins, a Pike County native who's moving back from Knoxville to be near her grandchild, said she thought the job fair was a good idea.

"A lot of people will benefit from this," Mullins said.