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Beyond Coal: Eastern Kentucky’s Future Economy

Jobs for the Future recently led a group of policymakers on a visit to Eastern Kentucky to see firsthand how that distressed region is focused on regaining economic strength so its livelihood won’t be dependent on a single industry. 

The people who have stayed in Eastern Kentucky have done so because they love the area, the culture, and their community, even if they can no longer work in the coal mines, as those jobs barely exist. The number of residents, however, has significantly shrunk. Tens of thousands have left the region to escape the high unemployment, the economic challenges, and the stress of living in this part of Appalachia in order to find work elsewhere to support themselves and their families.

In the southeast portion of the state in communities such as Lynch, Benham, and Cumberland, where coal mining once reigned supreme, and, as one regional official said, systemic generational poverty still exists, an unusual collaborative spirit has taken hold. As some key players say, residents want to “reinvent themselves.”

Benham Schoolhouse Inn, formerly a school for coal miners’ children.

Dr. Bruce Ayers, president emeritus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKCTC) is a lifelong resident of Harlan County and talks about how no other comparable place in the country has been studied by outside consultants as much as Eastern Kentucky has. And while they’re grateful for the myriad of suggested solutions for a better economy, Ayer says, they realize that local residents are the ones most appropriate to fix things. Jeff Whitehead, executive director of Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc., a workforce development agency, takes it a step further, bullishly asserting that “the region is a solution to be discovered, not just a problem to be solved.”

The Workforce Development One-Stop Center in Hazard, KY.

The solution, according to Whitehead and others, is the digital economy. Residents won’t have to leave for jobs if Eastern Kentucky prepares its communities for these new economic opportunities. This goal already has been years in the making, with more years ahead than behind to accomplish it. Strategically, Whitehead insists that the region needs to minimize boundaries and borders to ensure progress. Public and private collaborators in Kentucky, he says, “know each other, like each other, trust each other.” Practically speaking, however, the digital economy can’t embrace the area in earnest until it expands its broadband capacity. Officials acknowledge that is an urgent and critical piece of the puzzle.

Southeast Kentucky Community Technical College in Middlesboro, KY.

Certain community colleges, such as SKCTC, are active in the revitalization effort. New SKCTC president, Dr. Vic Adams, says there are plenty of challenges, coupled with resilience, to renew their region beyond coal.

Enrollment and revenue are up at SKCTC from last year, which Adams in part attributes to such postsecondary programs as Paths to Promise, which has graduated 58 students and 475 in Accelerating Opportunity to date. The success of these programs, says Adams, is the "intrusive advising" and supportive services provided to the students, many of whom are first-generation family members to attend college.

The program services alleviate the daily barriers—from lack of transportation to lack of child care—to enable students to focus on and complete their education.

Adams, Whitehead, and others in Eastern Kentucky point to employers as the other piece of the equation to ensure that students and their families recover from the loss of coal mining jobs. The statistic they commonly cite is that with each coal job eliminated, three service jobs also disappear. Employers provide the pipeline and the work-based learning opportunities for the students. Bell County Judge Executive Albey Brock says that every new job is welcome and appreciated, adding that 30 new jobs in this area qualifies as “headline news!