HAZARD (AP) — The Coal Fields Regional Industrial Park is sprawled across 400 acres of land in Perry County and has more than 200,000 square feet of warehousing space. But 20 years after its construction, just three companies call it home.
As jobs across the eastern Kentucky coal fields have disappeared, so have the workers. The labor force across 27 eastern Kentucky counties has dropped by 20 percent over the past decade that, coupled with a 4 percent population decline, has spooked many companies from locating in this isolated and economically depressed region that has historically depended on the coal industry to power its homes and its wallets.
That’s why on Wednesday, a coalition of 35 Kentucky businesses and community organizations released the results of a survey of more than 1,700 eastern Kentucky residents in the hopes locals can build on that information to shed the area’s reputation of a lackluster labor force.
“Lots of times the image of east Kentucky has been painted by the outside world. But once we get companies here, once we have the information available, they are really liking what they see and we get to tell our story ourselves,” said Scott Alexander, the judge-executive of Perry County, which is one of the five counties that owns the Coal Fields Regional Industrial Park.
The survey, conducted by Boyette Strategic Advisors and sponsored by the nonprofit One East Kentucky, offered a mix of bleak statistics and hopeful recommendations on how to promote the region’s workers as a loyal and skilled group, even if many do not have professional certifications.
Kentucky’s official unemployment rate fell to 4.9 percent in July, the lowest it has been in 15 years. But for the 20 coal-producing counties in eastern Kentucky, the average unemployment rate is 9.93 percent. Magoffin County has the highest unemployment rate at 16.3 percent. One of the survey’s authors, Kay Stebbins, says that because of the way the rates are determined, they probably aren’t high enough.
“There are so many long-term unemployed who have completely fallen off the rolls, they are not being counted anywhere,” Stebbins told a group of business and community leaders when announcing the results.
Of the people who responded to the survey, 62 percent were unemployed. More than half said they would be willing to commute more than 45 minutes one way for a job and had at least seven years of experience in their field. Of the 200 employers who responded to the survey, 77 percent said they were satisfied with the overall value of the workforce.
But while many of the former coal miners possess in-demand skills, such as welding, they often don’t have the professional certifications that most employers require. And a majority of workers surveyed said they were reluctant to participate in job training programs because they are expensive, take too much time and often do not account for the years of experience the workers already have.
“There has to be a way to address those people who have been performing a skill for 10 or 15 years, but they don’t have the credentials,” Stebbins said. “They don’t need to start the same place as a high school student.”
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin plans to borrow up to $100 million for workforce training programs over the next few years. So far, the Bevin administration has received 114 project pre-applications asking for more than $524 million. Of those, 17 came from coal-producing counties in eastern Kentucky for a total ask of more than $109 million. Groups that apply for the money have to pay at least 10 percent of the project’s cost. Applicants cannot use the money to hire people or pay for other operating expenses, but they can use it to build things, purchase equipment and advertise.
Greg Pauley, president of Kentucky Power, said he did not see any new information in the survey, but its value will be offering economic development officials some hard numbers to show prospective employers.
“I can tell you all the great things about eastern Kentucky — the resiliency of the people, their dedication and all that — but to have documented data … is critical to that person who is not familiar with eastern Kentucky,” he said.