Coal mining has changed. What’s next for miners?

Coal-mining families in Kentucky lost their jobs almost overnight. But they’re not giving up. Here’s how they built a new way of life.
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Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, the organization you see in this video, is eligible to win $50,000 from the Lumina Foundation’s Beautiful Minds contest. Learn more and cast your vote on YouTube now!

For generations, coal mining had been more than just a job for eastern Kentuckians—it was a way of life.

“Growing up, watching my dad come home, knowing what he did to provide for us, I always had coal mining in my head,” says Colton Yonts], a lifelong eastern Kentucky resident and the son of a coal miner. “In my mind, that’s what I wanted to do. But it kinda got taken away. It’s just a dying field.”

Addressing the coal employment crisis has fallen to people such as Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Kentucky Career Center, an organization dedicated to retraining laid off coal industry workers. (The Kentucky Career Center is operated by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, a foundation that serves residents from 23 Kentucky counties, helping them find and sustain gainful employment.)

One of the center’s programs sends former miners to the East Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute, a trade school that trains students for careers as robotics machinists and maintenance technicians in growing fields such as aerospace manufacturing.

“When the coal economy collapsed, we lost 34 percent of our labor force.”

Jeff Whitehead

“We had to double up on our mission to be relevant to the region and the people we serve. No one is coming to save us. We’ve gotta do this ourselves,” Whitehead continued.

Trouble in coal country

Coal has been increasingly unpopular as a fuel source over the past two decades, as corporations, governments, and consumers have transitioned to more efficient, more eco-friendly forms of fuel. While this is good for the long-term health of the planet, it has wreaked havoc on people in regions such as eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry is the primary form of employment.

The unemployment crisis in eastern Kentucky became especially dire in 2012, when the coal job market plummeted “overnight,” Whitehead says.

“People on staff that have family in the coal industry were saying, ‘This is different. This isn’t the typical job cycle we’ve seen. These people are leaving,’”

Faced with mass unemployment, eastern Kentucky had to find a way to retrain a vast swath of the region’s workforce in knowledge economy jobs — and fast.

“The people we serve are hard-working men and women that have found themselves in transition. They have mortgages. They have kids in school. They can’t put their life on hold for two years,” Whitehead says. “That point is really driven home when you’re sitting across the table from a 45-year-old man with tears in his eyes, saying, ‘You have to help me get a job now. I don’t have time.’”

At East Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute, eKAMI for short, students learn how to operate a variety of computer numerical control (CNC) machines, robotic machines that help automate many manufacturing processes.

Advanced as they are, CNC are not fully autonomous. They need the assistance and occasional maintenance of human operators, and eKAMI helps prepare former coal miners for such work. Graduates from eKAMI receive robotics operation credentials that are recognized nationwide.

But eKAMI doesn’t want to train workers and then send them off to work in far-flung cities across the country. The region has already experienced significant talent drain with the loss of coal jobs.

eKAMI wants to serve as a beacon for manufacturers, helping attract production facilities and manufacturing jobs to the hills and hollers.

If eKAMI can build a sizable skilled workforce, the jobs will soon follow, the thinking goes.

Up from the mines

The transition from coal mines to the factory floor can be difficult, especially for coal industry lifers. Colton’s father Kevin Yonts, for instance, ran a family-owned coal company before attending classes at eKAMI.

“After 30 years in the mining industry, it was a big change,” Yonts, an eKAMI graduate, says. “I had never sent an email. I went from kindergarten to college over the course of this class. If I hadn’t done this, I probably would have had to relocate.”

eKAMI not only offers employment opportunities in the short-term, but an avenue for intergenerational change. Kevin’s son attended eKAMI classes along with him.

Instead of a lifetime of dangerous, back-breaking work in the coal mines, Colton is now prepared for a career as a skilled tradesman.

It’s a more viable, more affordable route to employment than attending a traditional four-year university.

“This gave me the opportunity to not have to go into huge debt before I could possibly find a job,” Colton says. “If someone says you can have a good job within a year, I’m going to take that opportunity.”

Programs such as eKAMI help diversify the local economy, and in doing so attract jobs from higher-tech fields, as well, according to Whitehead.

“Our hope is a place where people with varied skill sets can find a home here,” Whitehead says.. “Whether that be in tech, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, their own business. With that environment comes a healthier eastern Kentucky and a more entrepreneurial eastern Kentucky.”

That entrepreneurial spirit has already spread to Kevin Yonts. Though he might not have his family coal company anymore, he has acquired valuable new skills in the field of advanced manufacturing, and he’s already dreaming about being a small business owner again.

“Who’s to say we can’t have our own manufacturing facility somewhere here in eastern Kentucky?” Kevin says, looking at his son.

If he does get the business off the ground, he’ll have a son who’s trained and ready to continue the legacy.

About The Beautiful Minds Contest

If you want Complete 2 Compete to win $50,000, thumbs up this video on YouTube!

Complete 2 Compete, the organization you see in this video, is eligible to win $50,000 from the Lumina Foundation’s Beautiful Minds contest. The Lumina Foundation exists to discover and support adult learning opportunities that exist outside of the traditional education system. 

The Beautiful Minds contest features three organizations, Complete 2 Compete, EKCEP, and District 1199C Training Fund. Each organization will win money to further their own missions.

  • First place wins $50,000
  • Second place wins $15,000
  • Third place wins $10,000

The contest begins March 23rd and voting concludes May 31st, and the winner will be announced June 3rd. The video with the best like ratio on YouTube wins!

Freethink is proud to host the Beautiful Minds contest, and we’ll be posting the three videos on our channel the following dates:

  • 3/24 – “36 million Americans have college credits but no degree. Let’s fix that,” featuring Complete 2 Compete. Watch here!
  • 4/6 – “What’s next for coal mining?” featuring EKCEP
  • 4/20 – “The apprenticeship that pays for your college degree” featuring District 1199C Training Fund

Come back to watch all of our Beautiful Minds videos, and thumbs up the videos you think deserve money to further their mission.

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