HAZARD — As more and more coal mines cease operations in the region, struggling Eastern Kentucky families are left scrambling for answers. Job opportunities for out-of-work miners are seemingly few and far between, but Hazard Community and Technical College’s Lineman Training Program has offered hope for a better life.
Funded by the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (HOME) program through the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), the lineman training course graduated 18 men, all of whom received their certificates in front of family, friends, and local leaders at the community college’s technical campus on Friday, July 11.
“In this time of difficulties with coal mining lay-offs, the lineman program offers training to get good-paying jobs again.” Jennifer Bergman, JOBSIGHT services director, said as she addressed the crowd and graduates on Thursday. “You were determined, and persevered through all of your hardships to get here to this day.”
Bergman said some of the men traveled 150 to 200 miles just to be in the program.
Keila Miller, workforce liaison and program coordinator for the lineman training program, spoke about the sacrifices the men made in order to participate in and complete the training.
“These guys went 10-hour days, Monday through Saturday,” she said. “So, it was either 44 or 52 hours a week. They put in a lot of time and a lot of effort.”
This was the second class to graduate from the program, the first having completed their training in December of last year. Miller said the theme of this year’s class was “Raising the Bar,” and that several improvements had been made to the program after consulting members of the first class and employers who hired men from the first class.
“We doubled the time of training that they got for Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs), because a CDL is crucial to them obtaining a job,” Miller said. “We also started changing the skills set and adding to it, like working in gloves, which is a major component out in the field. But it was something we didn’t have access to during the first class.”
Miller added that out of the 20 graduates from the first class, none had received their CDLs or any job offers by the time they graduated.
“In the second class, 27 percent of our graduates have already obtained their CDLs, and 44 percent of them already have job offers. So, that, to us, is just a huge improvement,” she said.
According to Bergman, out of the 20 students who graduated last December, 19 are currently working.
State Representative Fitz Steele spoke at the graduation ceremony.
“Washington needs to know that we don’t want a handout. We just want to work and be left alone,” he said.
He went on to describe the men as the backbone of the country and Eastern Kentucky.
Anthony Bowling, a former coal miner from Big Creek in Perry County, said he viewed his graduation from the program as an opportunity and a new career.
“A stable career, where I hopefully won’t be laid off and out of work ever again,” Bowling said.
Jason Engle, from Clear Creek in Knott County, graduated with honors. Engle said halfway through the program he was hired by Pike Electric to work as a lineman in Indiana. Despite working in another state during the week, Engle still made it back to Hazard for classes.
“I think it’s an open door,” Engle said, speaking about the program. “Electric work is always going to be there. The coal companies are shutting down almost every day, but somebody’s always going to need electric. I just think you can make good money and make people happy.”
HCTC does plan to have a third class in the lineman training program, Miller said.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” she said. “The Walmart Foundation has given us a $150,000 grant over the next three years to continue the lineman program. EKCEP is very much committed to this program, and we feel like that they will again pay tuition slots for dislocated coal miners as long as the funding lasts.”
Miller also said HCTC will try to run at least two programs per year, and will hopefully put at least 20 students in each class.
Senator Brandon Smith, who was also present at the ceremony, addressed the graduates.
“We are seeing a cycle of people leaving this part of the state … We don’t want you to leave. The lineman program allows you to stay here. By you staying here, it makes our community better,” he said. “You all are going to be part of the future.”
Mindy Miller can be reached at 606-436-5771, or on Twitter @HazardHerald.