Lineman program putting former coal miners back to work

Amelia Holliday — Staff Reporter

December 20, 2013

HAZARD—After more than 6,000 layoffs in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields have been reported since 2011, it would seem that for many in the industry night has come to the region. However, a program for out-of-work miners in the area provided with funds through the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP) may be helping the region find its way through the dark.

The first graduating class of the lineman training program at Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC) received certificates Friday morning at the college’s technical campus. Twenty graduates finished the program, HCTC and EKCEP Workforce Liaison Keela Miller said, and with a 100 percent completion rate odds are good the program will continue.

“We didn’t have anybody drop out, and the reason we didn’t have anybody drop out was because of our students. Our students rallied together for each other to make sure that they all completed, and our students have gone through some tough times in these eight and a half weeks, but they didn’t stop and they didn’t give up,” Miller said.

Funds from the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (HOME) program through EKCEP helped the college set up the lineman program this year, said HCTC President Steve Greiner, something the college had been working on getting started for a while in order to help those laid off miners find a way to ease their financial suffering.

Irmal Thornsberry, a graduate who was laid off from Alpha Natural Resources in January of this year, said he had been trying to get into a lineman program since he was laid off, but most programs in the region were full and had waiting lists.

“I was actually first scheduled to go to the Somerset program when I heard about this one. It was a lot closer, so I definitely wanted to come up here, and I’m actually glad I did,” Thornsberry said.

Thornsberry said he was very thankful to be able to participate in the program and that HOME was able to offer one so close to home.

“I thank God that I did it, I’m so glad that I did it,” he said. “I think it’s a Godsend because there is a lot of, I didn’t realize this at first, but there is a lot of demand for line workers, and as far as compensation, after you get your foot in the door it’s no different working in the mines as far as pay.”

Chris Dice, vice president of Gaylor Electric, actually attended the graduation in order to interview potential candidates for positions he said need desperately to be filled.

“There’s absolutely a need and a high demand, and going to be even more of a demand as it moves forward for well-trained individuals that want to work hard,” Dice said of lineman positions in the industry. “We’ve got a lot of the baby boomer generation retiring now … so there’s going to be a higher demand.”

Dice said he was very impressed with the program at HCTC, and even though it was the first class and the training is only about eight weeks long, what the graduates learn is exactly what businesses like his are looking for in new hires.

“It takes good, hard workers from one industry and trains them for another, and that’s what’s needed,” he said.

Graduates are still waiting to receive their commercial driver’s license (CDL) at the end of the year before they can be accepted into any positions, but graduate Jason Halcomb said he and his classmates have been getting offers from companies since before graduation.

“Actually, I’ve had Pike (Electric) call, KU (Kentucky Utilities) … they say call me back when you get your CDL,” he said.

Larry Knight, one of the instructors for the program, addressed the graduates before they received their certificates.

“You should be proud of what you’re doing, just like you were when you were a coal miner. You guys are doing something not a lot of guys can do,” Knight said.

Thornsberry said he was proud of his time and experience in the program, but was more excited about a future the program has made into more than just a possibility.

“I’m ready to go back to work,” he said.