In less than a few short weeks, the lives of hundreds of families will have changed forever. If the announcement that Blackjewel had shuttered its mining operations in Kentucky wasn’t enough, that announcement was followed by a similar announcement from Cambrian Coal that it had also filed for bankruptcy.
While much has been written about these unexpected events, especially the way Blackjewel treated its employees, what has risen from the literal ashes of the closings of these coal mining operations is an army of neighbors helping neighbors, neighbors offering a hand up, not a handout. In the words of Harry Truman, “All will concede that in order to have good neighbors, we must also be good neighbors. That applies in every field of human endeavor.” Those words ring true today when it comes to the miners, their families, and their neighbors, neighbors who have been, and will continue to be good neighbors.
Over the past few weeks, many politicians have appeared on the scene in order to create an array of photos, photos which will appear in political commercials for and against other politicians. What we realize is that at the end of the day those photo opportunities will do little to prepare Kentucky’s miners and their families for the uncertain future which they face. What we do realize is that if these families are going to survive, they will have to rely on their neighbors, neighbors who quietly and with little fanfare have provided the much needed support, support necessary to help the miners and their families, support which will continue long after the plight of these miners is no longer a front page story.
So, the rhetorical question which necessarily needs to be answered is what does the future hold for Kentucky’s coal miners and their families. One simple answer is that for the most part coal mining is no longer a job which can be relied upon as a means to raise a family, pay the bills, and prepare for retirement. Instead, it is time to begin rethinking the future of the mountains, a future which can, and must be defined by new jobs, new technologies, a new vision of what the innovative and hard working people of the mountains can achieve not through government handouts, but with a spirit of neighbors helping neighbors.
Maybe, just maybe, it is time to consider a new vision, a vision which was recently brought to Paintsville where Kentuckians, former coal miners, are acquiring the skills necessary to operate computer numeric controlled machines, skills which are preparing them to step out of the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky into jobs of the future. Kathy Walker, an entrepreneur and founder of eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute, a woman who cares about her neighbors, the people of Eastern Kentucky, had this to say when eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing was announced, “We have an amazing asset here that is often overlooked and rarely discussed - a tremendously skilled, dedicated and loyal workforce.”
Mike Rowe, the actor best known for hosting the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs said it best, “Some jobs pay better, some jobs smell better, and some jobs have no business being treated like careers. But work is never an enemy, regardless of the wage. Because somewhere between the job and the paycheck, there’s still a thing called opportunity, and that’s what people need to pursue.” That is what the people of the mountains will do, and have always done, they get up each day and understand that between the job and the paycheck, there are untold opportunities.
Today, through the amazing dedication of Kentucky’s Community and Technical Colleges, the next generation of Eastern Kentuckians are being trained with the job skills of the future, job skills which will last long after the last ton of coal is mined in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Through a cooperative effort from Eastern Kentucky’s community and technical colleges, Eastern Kentucky’s entrepreneurs, and Eastern Kentucky’s neighbors helping neighbors, the future of Eastern Kentucky, the future of the mountains is bright.
So, as I often do, I would invite everyone to join me on my imaginary mountaintop, especially all of the friendly, hardworking people of the mountains, a place where everyone can look out over the region and realize that Eastern Kentucky will survive the end of an era of coal mining as the region transitions to the skilled jobs of the future, jobs which require a workforce willing to get their hands dirty, a workforce that has always understood that between the job and paycheck, there are untold opportunities, opportunities which will only happen when neighbors help neighbors.