The human toll is high unemployment coupled with a lack of opportunity for jobs nearby, although several manufacturers are planning new facilities within a couple hours drive from Hazard. Briady Industries, near Ashland, aims to open a state-subsidized $1.3 billion aluminum rolling mill by 2020, with the promise of more than 550 jobs. Silver Liner has said it will employ 50 people to assemble tanker trucks in Pikeville when its operations begin later this year. Last December, EnerBlu, a California-based advanced battery maker, announced plans to erect a $412-million gigafactory in Pikeville — on the site of a shuttered coal mine — slated to launch in 2020 and employ up to 875 workers.
In the meantime, HCTC offers training programs designed to put unemployed miners back to work right away. The most successful has been the lineman course Bowling completed. "We've trained around 186 people, mostly miners, in the program," Lindon reported, "and we have a 90 percent placement rate."
There's a hitch, however. Most of those jobs are out of town, requiring linemen to be on the road during the week and travel home on weekends. Some jobs are even more demanding. Bowling, for instance, spoke to CNBC.com by phone from Puerto Rico, where he's working for 120 days helping to repair the electrical system hit by Hurricane Maria.
HCTC has had to reconsider some of its workforce curriculum, recognizing a catch-22 that frustrates many community and technical colleges. "Should I train 100 people in advanced manufacturing when I don't have a manufacturer in my area?" she said. "Or if I train them, does that mean [Hazard] will be more attractive to industry?"
Further complicating matters is that many miners, particularly older ones, lack college degrees, an unintended consequence for decades of landing good-paying mining jobs right out of high school. That excludes them from transitioning to careers that require high-level STEM degrees, so HCTC's automotive, welding and HVAC certificate courses are popular.
Another persistent obstacle, said Cornett, ties back to Hazard's coal culture. "From an outsider's perspective, it's a dirty, dangerous job, and how can anyone do it? From here, though, mining is not just a vocation, but an avocation," he explained. "There's a sense of pride and purpose, and nothing to be ashamed of. To see the industry downturn tears at the cultural roots of how people perceive themselves and where they live, because it pulls the rug out from underneath you."
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The challenge, Cornett said, is to get miners to see themselves in a different light, and to reimagine how to take the skills they have and apply them to another occupation. Heavy-equipment operators, truck drivers, mechanics and engineers from the coal industry may be able use their know-how in a variety of businesses, including the fledgling drone industry that's emerging in Hazard. "We're trying to get the region as a whole to see itself not as it was, but what it can become."