Work retraining could retool Eastern Kentucky’s future, lawmakers told

Staff Report

FRANKFORT — Scan the locations of the “7 World-Changing Companies to Watch” published by Fortune magazine in August and you’ll find few surprises until you get about halfway down the list.

There, among the list of up-and-comers in tech-savvy states like California and New York and world digital economy heavyweights of Sweden and South Korea is a Pikeville, Kentucky firm called Bit Source, a computer coding company that is retraining out-of-work coal industry workers and others for work in the digital world. The company had over 900 applicants when it opened over a year ago and, so far, has trained 10 former mine workers in web design and management.

Bit Source recently brought its first Fortune 500 client on board, says Fortune, and is partnering with workforce training agencies like the Hazard-based Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP) to expand its reach.

“If it takes off, and grows, it could change the face of Eastern Kentucky,” EKCEP Executive Director Jeff Whitehead told the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Environment on Thursday.

And Bit Source is only one partner in EKCEP’s work to get Eastern Kentucky prepped for the changing economy. Other partners, like Interact of Louisville and Big Sandy Community and Technical College, are teaching laid-off coal workers and others what they need to know to get high-skilled jobs with companies like Bit Source, said Whitehead. Retraining of workers for jobs as electrical linemen and CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machining—a technology that is replacing tool and die—is also on track, as are job fairs that have landed Eastern Kentuckians jobs with companies like Toyota and the R.J. Corman Railroad Company.

Whitehead said some EKCEP training, like training offered to laid-off miners interested in CNC, has taken place outside of Eastern Kentucky. Although the training has paid off—six former coal industry workers trained in CNC at a program in Indianapolis now work for Lockheed Martin in Mt. Sterling—Whitehead said the goal is to keep most retraining in Eastern Kentucky.

“We don’t want to send people to Indianapolis for that training. We want that training to be local,” said Whitehead. “We want more people to participate.”

Most funding for EKCEP so far has come from its H.O.M.E. (Hiring Our Miners Everyday) program and a nearly $7 million federal community impact grant for retraining of non-coal workers. Whitehead said the H.O.M.E. grant alone has provided around $16.3 million in national emergency grant funds to serve around 3,900 out-of-work coal industry workers and their families since 2012.

Of those approximately 3,900 people, Whitehead said around 1,772 have found work.

“There are a lot more people that we need to help, but … we’re pretty proud that we’ve at least connected with nearly 3,900 people and provided them services,” Whitehead said.

The services EKCEP provides now are much different than those it provided when the agency first got started. At nearly half a century old, the agency has seen 23 Eastern Kentucky counties through both the fat and lean years of the coal industry, helping meet the needs of workers as the economy has changed. Today, more than a dozen state and federal employer and training programs are accessible to employers and jobseekers via the agency.

Natural Resources and Environmental co-chair Rep. Fitz Steele, D-Hazard, complemented Whitehead on the work of EKCEP, mentioning that the Kentucky Coal Association has been a partner in the agency’s efforts.

“We have a partner in this room that is silent … and that’s the Kentucky Coal Association. They work together well,” said Steele.

Rep. Tim Couch, R-Hyden, reminded everyone on the committee than around 17,000 coal jobs have been lost in Eastern Kentucky. He said training people for new work is important but said “it’s sad” what has happened to the coal industry in the past decade.

“The thing that makes it so sad is it’s just unnecessary. It’s so unnecessary what the federal government through the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has done to the coal industry. And it’s not going to stop. You’re offsetting some of that but… it’s going to get worse. There’s going to be more unemployment.”

Whitehead agreed things are bad economically in Eastern Kentucky and said “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” But, he said, the retraining and other work that is taking place gives him hope for the future.

“I do have to hope that when we reach the bottom we will have some things in place where we start building some momentum to diversify the economy,” he said.

Staff Report

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