Mining for opportunities

Bevill State Community College has helped to reskill former coal-industry workers into welders and more at its Jasper campus in Alabama and hopes to do the same via its new Rapid Training Center on its Hamilton campus. (Photo: Bevill State)

Appalachian communities from Alabama to New York have been hit hard by job losses over the last decade as the nation has become less reliant on coal — and community colleges in these areas are spearheading efforts to train displaced coal workers for other careers.

“This isn’t a sudden challenge,” says Kevin Boys, executive director of the Community Colleges of Appalachia and former president of Southern State Community College in Ohio. “All of us have been reading the tea leaves for a number of years.”

U.S. coal production peaked in 2008 before dropping sharply through 2021, according to a report commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Overall, U.S. coal production declined by around 550 million tons between 2001 and 2021, or nearly 56%. The drop was even more pronounced in Appalachia, where production fell by 64%.

As coal production has dropped, so has employment. The Appalachian region alone lost more than 37,000 jobs from 2011 to 2021.

Partners in the transition

Aided by grants from organizations such as ARC and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), community colleges are leading workforce development initiatives to transition coal-dependent economies and reskill employees for success in other industries.

In September, DOL announced $34.4 million in grants to provide education, training and support services in regions hit hard by job losses in coal and other energy industries through its Workforce Opportunity for Rural Communities initiative. Among the grant recipients is BridgeValley Community and Technical College in West Virginia, which received $1.4 million to provide training and incentives for displaced coal workers to learn new skills so they can find jobs in the manufacturing and technology sectors.

In October, ARC awarded nearly $47 million in grants to 52 projects affecting more than 180 Appalachian counties through its POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity, Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Initiative, which directs federal resources to economic diversification projects in communities affected by coal-related job losses. Altogether, ARC has invested more than $316 million in POWER grants since 2016 — and many of these projects are led by community colleges.

“We need to help (residents of coal-dependent areas) see a future that might not be visible to them now,” says Kris Westover, president of Mountain Empire Community College in southwest Virginia.

Reducing coal dependence

Three of the four counties that Mountain Empire serves ARC considers “distressed,” meaning they rank among the bottom 10% of counties in the nation in terms of economic development.

“Most of the industries in our region are based in coal mining,” Westover says. Yet, many of these mines have closed, and a coal-fueled power plant in the area is scheduled to close in 2026.

Mountain Empire has been working to reduce the region’s dependence on coal for several years.

“We’ve tried for a decade or more to include alternative energy in our energy technology program,” Westover notes. These efforts received a boost in 2020 when Virginia approved the use of power purchase agreements that make it more affordable for businesses and homeowners to install solar panels and arrays.

With help from a $50,000 grant from solar installer Secure Futures, Mountain Empire added a certificate program in solar power installation and created an apprenticeship program for students to get hands-on experience in building solar arrays.

Lagging behind

However, renewable energies aren’t creating enough jobs by themselves to replace those lost in the coal industry. Westover estimates that 12 to 15 people graduate from Mountain Empire’s energy technology program every year, and about 10 students earned a solar certification in the most recent cycle. Meanwhile, at least 2,000 coal workers have lost their jobs in counties the college serves.

Community colleges in coal-dependent areas are working with local employers to create programs in high-demand, high-wage industries that can help reskill displaced workers. Yet, the remoteness of many of these communities represents a challenge.

“It’s much easier to locate a large manufacturing plant where you have a population center to support that,” Boys observes.

Changing mindsets

In 2017, Mountain Empire received a $950,000 POWER grant from ARC to train displaced coal workers to become utility linemen. Between an aging workforce and the demand for broadband, local utilities expressed a need for line workers. The college worked with the Virginia Employment Commission to connect with displaced coal workers in marketing the 15-week training program. During its four-year duration, the program trained more than 300 people — 96% of whom found employment with utility companies when they graduated.

“One of the biggest lessons we learned is that a lot of this work centers on changing peoples’ mindsets, so they’re not tied to just one industry,” Westover says.

Many coal workers have pieced together part-time work during down periods throughout their careers, she explains. They’ve been able to make a lot of money — sometimes as much as $90,000 per year — in the coal industry. So when they lose their job, many think, “I’ll just wait it out until another mine opens or the economy turns around.”

Mountain Empire has seen success by using a multi-pronged strategy to reach multiple generations. While career counselors at the college talk with displaced miners about other options available to them, career coaches in local high schools aim to reach the next generation.

“We’re showing them workforce opportunities beyond just going into the mines,” Westover says.

Overcoming obstacles

Incentives will play a key role in BridgeValley’s new DOL grant project, which intends to train at least 200 displaced coal workers for advanced manufacturing and information technology jobs over the next three years.

“Every employer in our region says they need cybersecurity expertise,” says President Casey Sacks.

BridgeValley has campuses in South Charleston and Montgomery, West Virginia. The latter community has been particularly hard hit by job losses in the coal industry in recent years.

“We have the lowest workforce participation in the country,” Sacks says. “Half the people between the ages of 16 and 60 in Montgomery aren’t working. We need to help them get off the sidelines and get back to work.”

BridgeValley Community and Technical College in West Virginia will use a $1.4 million federal grant to provide training and incentives for displaced coal workers to learn new skills so they can find jobs in the manufacturing and technology sectors. (Photo: BridgeValley)

In addition to employment counselors, tuition assistance and academic coaching, the grant will pay for incentives such as gas cards to help people get back and forth to classes.

“We’re trying to figure out how to connect with students and encourage participation, so they’ll engage with school,” Sacks says.

Addiction challenges

Opioid counseling is another strategy that might help. The opioid crisis has ravaged many mining communities, and addiction counseling is one of the services that Bevill State Community College will provide as part of a new Rapid Training Center being constructed on its Hamilton, Alabama, campus with the help of a $1.5 million POWER grant.

Bevill State has partnered with Northwest Alabama Mental Health Center to help residents overcome addiction as they learn new skills that will help them transition to welding and HVAC careers.

“When coal jobs disappeared, there was a high level of opioid addiction,” says Tana Collins, director of enrollment management, public relations and recruiting for Bevill State. “There is a big link between recovery and job success.”

The Rapid Training Center follows a similar project that Bevill State created on its Jasper campus with a 2017 POWER grant. From 2000 to 2015, employment in two area counties dropped by 20% as a result of coal job losses. The center in Jasper trained 4,800 people for jobs in manufacturing, construction, healthcare, IT and other fields from 2018 to 2020.

Retraining workers and reinventing local economies that have been largely dependent on coal requires an entrepreneurial spirit, Boys says. Community college leaders need to explore partnerships, think creatively and focus on reducing the barriers to participation. Short-term training programs that offer stackable credentials offer a promising model, and organizations like the ARC and DOL can help.

“We can’t do it alone,” he concludes.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce
Dennis Pierce is an education writer based in Boston.