PAINTSVILLE – In 2014, Michael Preston became a statistic.
Like thousands of others across eastern Kentucky, Preston, 38, of Stanville, lost his job as a drill operator at a local coal mine. He had spent 16 years in the mines and the thought of not working was not an option.
“When the coal jobs left, I felt hopeless,” said Preston. “I didn’t know what to do.”
A trip to the local Kentucky Career Center evolved into much more than signing up for unemployment benefits. There, he connected with the group of people with the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) office and learned about the H.O.M.E. (Hiring Our Miners Everyday) program, administered by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP).
Through the program, Preston was able to return to school. Months after being laid off he enrolled in classes at Big Sandy Community and Technical College to pursue a career in electrical technology.
Fast forward to two years later, Preston is days away from being a college graduate.
“Not only will I be a college graduate, but also someone with a marketable skill set that will allow me to take care of myself and my family,” he said.
Preston said like many adult learners, walking into the college for the first time was the most difficult part.
“You think about college and you think about kids right out of high school, and that’s intimidating, as well as the technology and other things,” he explained. “It wasn’t like that for me. The college was welcoming, and I felt immediately that this was where I was supposed to be.”
C.W. Vanhoose, Preston’s professor of electrical technology, said he has a special place in his heart for adult learners, specifically those displaced from the coal industry.
“It’s tough because the layoffs have been so widespread,” said Vanhoose. “No one has been immune from this. It has affected everyone in some way, shape or form.”
Vanhoose said the student he has now is much different than the student that arrived two years ago.
“At first, you could sense Michael’s nervousness,” Vanhoose recalled. “As he settled in, he adapted well, and he, like other adult learners, often become mentors for our young students.”
Preston will walk across the stage at the Mountain Arts Center with an Associate of Applied Science degree in Electrical Technology.
“I’ll walk across that stage with another tool for my toolbox,” he said. “A tool that will build a brighter future for me and my family.”