HAZARD – In his first visit to Eastern Kentucky since becoming Majority Leader, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell spoke before a crowd of nearly 250 people Monday, Aug. 31, at the Kentucky Career Center JobSight workforce center in Hazard during a luncheon hosted by Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), Inc.
McConnell was joined by EKCEP Executive Director Jeff Whitehead, who thanked McConnell for his service as Majority Leader, and for his support of workforce issues in Eastern Kentucky. That support includes McConnell’s backing of the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) jobs initiative, which has served more than 2,300 laid-off coal miners and their spouses since 2012 through a $12.7 million National Emergency Grant (NEG) from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“Sen. McConnell’s support for the work EKCEP is doing in Eastern Kentucky can’t by overstated,” Whitehead said. “We’re working every day not only to help our displaced workers get back on their feet, but also to provide our employers the support they need to find. This is work we could not do without the support of our leaders at the federal level.”
McConnell lauded the efforts of workforce development agencies like EKCEP as “extraordinary” and “needed work in Eastern Kentucky.” And while that work has placed a heavy emphasis on providing services to former coal miners, he said he is also emboldened to see those efforts include work to diversify the regional economy and develop other employment sectors beyond coal.
As an example, McConnell recognized Rusty Justice and M. Lynn Parrish, the co-founders of Bit Source, a new computer-coding firm in Pikeville that for the past eight months, has trained former coal industry workers to become computer programmers. EKCEP fully subsidized the training wages for the Bit Source’s interns, and is currently providing on-the-job training assistance to cover a percentage of the workers’ salaries as they transition to full-time employees and programmers.
“The wonderful work that you guys are doing to provide other opportunities for people is important,” McConnell said. “I don’t think we ought to give up on coal, but I also don’t think we ought to not be doing these other things that all of you all are involved in to try to get us new opportunities for our folks here in Eastern Kentucky.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive,” he added.
Kentucky Sen. Brandon Smith and ARH Attorney Rick King, a member of the EKCEP Board of Directors, also spoke at the event.
Also recognized on Monday were past H.O.M.E. participants Chris Sexton and Brandon Watts, both former coal miners who received support from the H.O.M.E. program to transition to new careers. Sexton is currently working as an EMT in Letcher County, while Watts is a police officer for the city of Harlan.
McConnell also touched on other issues before U.S. Congress since he took the title of majority leader, which included rewriting the “No Child Left Behind” Act, passing the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, and finalizing a multi-year highway bill. He added that this past year has been full of a few personal accomplishments as well.