Joel Bowen slips slowly down a telephone pole, his boots fixed with little metal spears to grip the wood.
“It’s just like starting all over again, but I figure a couple of years the money will start rolling in better,” he says, his face dripping with sweat from the Kentucky humidity. “It has to be better on my health. I won’t be breathing in the coal dust and the rock dust no more.”
At 48, after spending years below ground in the coal mines, Bowen is preparing to work in the sky. He’s enrolled in a 12-week program co-sponsored by the Hazard Community and Technical College and the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, an effort to find new work for some of the thousands of coal miners who have been laid off in recent years.
Most of the men in the program are leaving coal reluctantly. Although the outside world may see mining as dangerous, backbreaking work, coal is woven into the fabric of life in eastern Kentucky, and jobs in the industry pay well and provide plenty of camaraderie.
“I loved it when I was in the coal mines. I’m third generation. I’ve done it my whole life,” says Gabriel Smith. But after being laid off for the fourth time not long ago, he figured it was time to leave.
“I have a wife. I have two children. I have a third baby on the way — actually just due in one month — and this is my way of trying to get back on my feet,” Smith says.
What miners such as Bowen and Smith know is that coal is being buffeted by shifts in the economic winds. Production has plummeted and so has the most reliable source of employment in the region.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet says nearly 14,000 miners worked in eastern Kentucky in 2011; by the second quarter of this year the number had fallen to less than 4,000.
“We’ve got counties that lost 40 or 50 percent of their workforce,” says Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program. “When that happened, we knew things were going to get bad. And we probably are braced for things to still get worse before they get better.”
Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, toured the region this week. She says, “They’ve been so dependent for so long on one particular industry, and they’ve built their lives on that industry. And it’s served them well for quite a long time, and then it started declining.”
In a speech in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday, Mester noted the dramatic shift affecting the region.
“While the rest of Kentucky has gained population since 1980, population in eastern Kentucky has been fairly flat and has even begun to decline over the past five years as the coal industry has contracted,” she said. “Deaths are now outpacing births, and net migration in eastern Kentucky has shifted from an inflow of around 1,300 people a year on average from 1995 to 2011 to an outflow of about 1,100 people a year on average since then.”
Many people have already fled the region in search of work, and in a close-knit area where families go back generations, the outflow of people rips a big hole in the social fabric, says Betsy Clemons, executive director of the Hazard Perry County Chamber of Commerce.
“In the mountains, you depend on your family, like for child care and just any kind of need. Someone gets sick, you have your family here to support you. And it’s been devastating for those that have had to leave, because you don’t have that family support they’ve always been used to,” Clemons says.
If the downturn has a bright side, it’s that it’s forcing people to think about what a post-coal world might look like.
Community leaders are eager to diversify the economy and have been reaching out to employers to try to learn what it will take to lure them to the region.
“We’re all worried that coal is gone,” says Joel Brashear, community outreach officer at Hyden Citizens Bank in Leslie County.” I don’t know for sure if coal will ever come back. Everybody hopes that it does. But we have to find other opportunities and other places for employment, and if we don’t we’re going to have some serious issues.”
Unlike a lot of people, Brashear doesn’t believe luring manufacturers is the answer to the area’s troubles. Factories can come and go, he says, and when they relocate, they can devastate a town’s economy.
Instead, Brashear wants to see an effort to encourage entrepreneurialism, by showing people how to start businesses that will be more likely to stay in the area. There’s already an effort to teach computer coding to ex-miners, some of whom have found work.
The state also has a program to bring broadband access to eastern Kentucky and other underserved area, which local officials believe is necessary to stimulate the economy.
Contrary to stereotypes, mining has become a fairly technical job involving advanced skills, and many ex-miners are better prepared for the modern economy than potential employers may realize, the Cleveland Fed’s Mester says.
For all the challenges the region faces, Mester says she is hopeful about the future. Local officials are putting a lot of effort into rebuilding the economy, she says.
“They understand that it takes leadership,” she says. “They understand that it takes collaboration. They understand that you have to know what the jobs in demand in the future are going to be, so that you can start now to train those people in those jobs.”