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2012 August 20 - 12:00 am

Laid-Off Coal Miners Turning to Education for New Skills

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Joel Harvey’s life turned downward amid the setbacks that hamstrung coal mining, the lifeblood of eastern Kentucky’s economy. Suddenly, the father of two who had worked since his teenage days found himself unemployed.

Laid off since mid-January, and with no immediate job prospects, the 36-year-old Perry County man is preparing to go back to school to acquire new skills. In the meantime, he’s relying on unemployment benefits to sustain his family.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve hit this road and it’s been hard,” Harvey said.

Hundreds of other displaced coal miners in Kentucky’s Appalachian region are in similar circumstances, victims of a slumping coal sector as natural gas gains in popularity as a substitute to generate electricity. The downward trend began early this year amid the cheap natural gas prices and a mild winter that led to coal stockpiles.

A host of education, government and community agencies are helping the unemployed cope as they seek work.

Three benefit fairs are being offered in Hazard to steer the jobless toward available services and benefits. The events will offer job-search advice on how to write resumes and impress during job interviews. Participants will be told how to get GEDs or enroll in college and obtain financial aid. They’ll be steered toward low-cost health care and prescriptions and available programs to assist in paying utility bills and mortgage payments.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear joined in urging job seekers to take advantage of the events.

“We must do all we can to help out-of-work Kentuckians get back on their feet so they can keep a roof over their heads, pay their bills and feed their families,” he said in a statement.

Unemployment in eastern Kentucky is outpacing the state average. Officials said the regional rate could rise in coming months.

In May, the jobless rate in a 23-county region in the heart of the eastern Kentucky coalfields was 11.2 percent, compared to just over 8 percent statewide, said Bridget Back, a manager with the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.

EKCEP, a nonprofit group that matches employees with people looking for work, is an organizer of the benefit fairs.

So far, the state has received notice of more than 2,000 coal mining layoffs in eastern Kentucky this year, according to Back. That’s not all-inclusive because those notices cover job losses from mass layoffs or mine closings. It doesn’t include smaller layoffs.

The biggest single setback came last month when Arch Coal Inc. said it was cutting about 750 jobs in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, with almost 600 coming in eastern Kentucky.

Those filings to the state serve as 60-day notices that workers are losing their jobs. In most cases, the mine operators send the workers home at that time but keep paying them during the period, she said.

So the workers don’t file for jobless benefits, and aren’t counted among the unemployed, until after that period.

As a result, officials are bracing for higher unemployment figures in eastern Kentucky in coming months, said Melissa Quillen, a regional program manager with the state Office of Employment and Training.

The decline in mining jobs has spun off more pink slips at businesses that provide mining services, officials said. Meanwhile, available jobs have declined in eastern Kentucky, another sign of the struggling economy, Quillen said.

“There are jobs available, but people have to be willing to retrain and in some cases relocate,” she said.

And few jobs match the $70,000 or more that experienced miners made each year, she noted.

David Adkins, who was laid off from his mining job in April, isn’t waiting for the coal sector to recover. He’s heading back to school for two years of training to become a surgical technician.

“If something doesn’t change it’s probably my only option if I want to stay here,” Adkins said.

More than a dozen of his former mining co-workers have left in search of jobs in Louisville, Lexington and out of state.

Harvey is holding out hope for a return to the mines. He’s gained certification as a mine emergency technician, enabling him to help treat injured miners. And he’s preparing to go back to school for electrical training intended to make him more employable in the mines.

“That’s what I want to go back to,” he said. “I enjoy it. It’s a good way of life.”

In the meantime, he and his children — ages 15 and 12 — have cut out trips to restaurants, movies and the bowling alley. He stretches his unemployment benefits enough to cover rent, groceries, auto insurance and other expenses.

Some trends spurring the downturn in the coal sector appear to be reversing. Natural gas prices are rising, and the hot summer is increasing demand for electricity to cool homes and businesses. That means more use of coal to generate electricity.

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said some estimate it will take up to two years for the region’s coal sector to fully recover.

“We’re still not sure if this bad news for eastern Kentucky coal mining is over yet,” Bissett said.

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