PIKEVILLE – Traditionally, the start of the New Year is a time for reflection on the last 12 months and resolving to make better choices for the next year. For Pike Countian Michael Ward, that included choosing to find more gainful, stable employment as the clock struck midnight and the calendar turned over to 2015.
“I was unemployed, in and out of a few jobs,” the 24-year-old remembers. “I did heating and cooling for a couple of years, and I went to Hobby Lobby when they opened it in Pikeville. It didn’t last.”
Clad in a black work uniform, Ward sits at a desk in an office at the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP) in Hazard. He recalls details of his journey through unemployment and into a job he now loves. He studies his hands, weathered from previous work experience.
“I went to college for heating and cooling, just didn’t stick with it. I lost a couple of jobs, and just didn’t go back into it. I decided to go in another direction,” he says.
Since most job openings for drivers in the region required applicants to have their commercial drivers license (CDL), obtaining his CDL was the logical first step to finding a job he would like and wouldn’t leave him living paycheck to paycheck.
In the early months of 2015, Ward learned of a CDL program offered at Big Sandy Community and Technical College. But covering the cost of the program presented hurdle in his path.
“I had wanted to go through the program, and I wanted to pay for it out of my pocket, but they wouldn’t take payments, and I didn’t have that up front,” Ward remembers, adding that at one point he also tried, without luck, for a job that would provide CDL training.
Resigned to wait until his luck would change, Ward says he took a trip to the Office of Employment and Training in Pikeville to sign up for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. It was there that he had the good fortune of running into a stranger who had gone through the same CDL program Ward had been trying to enroll in—but his tuition was paid for after he had visited the Big Sandy Community Action Program (CAP).
Big Sandy CAP provides Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) career advising services in Magoffin, Johnson, Martin, Floyd and Pike counties under contract with EKCEP. The services help people re-enter the workforce or upskill for new, better jobs and careers. In addition to assistance to dislocated or underemployed adult workers, the agency also provides workforce services to at-risk youth and area employers.
“I kind of thought it was too good to be true at first,” Ward remembers. “I figured if I could get my CDL it might give me a better chance at the job I wanted or at some other job.”
Ward says he made a trip to the Big Sandy CAP and talked to expert career advisor Jennifer Hampton about how to get enrolled in the program.
“Jenny gave me the stuff to contact the instructor at Big Sandy to see whenever I could be able to get in the class., and they signed me up for it,” he says.
Ward started the program, which included classroom and range instruction with a certified instructor. By April, he and his classmates were licensed commercial vehicle drivers entering the job market.
“It was an excellent program,” he says. “For the first half of the day, we’d go out on the lot and do nothing but practice backing up, maneuvering, trying to get ready for the driving test. Then, the second half of the day, you get to go out on the road and learn how to shift, and look for other bad drivers.”
Around six weeks into the job hunt, Ward landed a job with Coca-Cola in Pikeville as a route and relief driver.
“I’ve worked a lot of bad places. This is a lot better than most of them,” he laughs. “It’s one of the best jobs I’ve had, I’d say, honestly. It’s the hardest job, or one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had.”
Looking back, Ward is unsure what the future could have held and where he would be had he not heard about and utilized the services at Big Sandy CAP.
“Who knows?” he shrugs. “Might be driving cross country; might be moved out of here to somewhere else.”
“I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it (the training), because if I could afford to pay for it then I’d already have a good job, and not have time to go to school Monday through Friday,” he adds, chuckling.