The unemployment rate for the state has fallen from 8.8 percent in January 2012 to 7.9 percent in January 2013, the lowest it has been in four years; Perry County, though, has seen an increase in unemployment for that same time frame, going from 10.3 percent to 13.7 percent. In just one month, the county has seen an increase of over one percentage point, with jobless rates recorded at 12.6 percent for December of last year, according to the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training.
Michael Cornett, director of agency expansion and public relations for the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), said the picture these numbers paint might not be as clear as one would think.
“When those numbers are reported to go down, that doesn’t necessarily mean that things are getting better,” Cornett said.
What many fail to take into consideration, he explained, is the fact that the unemployment numbers record those people who have been actively searching for a job in the last four weeks.
“Sometimes that just simply means that the people who are on the unemployment rolls in Frankfort have dropped off those records; they don’t necessarily drop off them into a job,” Cornett added.
Other counties in the region saw similar upsurges in joblessness. Letcher County recorded the second highest rates in the state at 16.9 percent, up over six percentage points since January 2012. Leslie County was the second highest with 16.4 percent, and Knott County was also one of the highest, with 15.1 percent; both of these counties received a four percentage point increase since last year.
Of the top 10 counties with the highest rates, nine of them were in Eastern Kentucky.
Cornett said the reason for these spikes when the rest of the state is faring better than it has in years may not be surprising to most.
“I think it’s fairly obvious that coal, and specifically the downturn in the industry that we’ve seen since January of 2012, is largely responsible for the double-digit unemployment rates that we have seen in our region,” he said.
The 23 counties EKCEP encompasses have recorded just over 2,000 coal-related layoffs since January 2012, Cornett said.
“That’s documented layoffs, we suspect that it’s actually closer to 3,000 because some companies that laid off did not notify the state when they did,” he added. “I think it’s pretty easy to see where those double-digit unemployment rates are coming from.”
Cornett said the reason for such high numbers comes from the fact that, not only were jobs affected that were directly affiliated with the industry, but there are also jobs on a secondary and tertiary level that rely on the coal industry.
“Like your Whayne Supplys of the world and other trucking companies, companies that supply other parts the coal mines use for their equipment and so on, and when the coal industry’s down it’s obvious that those companies are going to suffer just the same. It’s a cyclical effect, and with our region being so dependent on the single industry … I think it’s self-explanatory that you’re going to see unemployment rates that correlate with the dip in that industry, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing,” he said.
When it’s so commonly said locally that there are no other opportunities in Eastern Kentucky besides the coal industry, it’s hard to find someone who will disagree with that. Cornett, however, does.
“I think it’s a misconception to say there are no other jobs available. There are jobs available, but, whether it’s a miner or anyone else in any other sector who happened to have lost a job, they might have to pursue training of some sort to get the skills that they need to transition into those new careers,” Cornett explained.
Jobs in skilled trades like carpentry, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, electrical work, and many other things are all opportunities waiting for people to be trained for, Cornett said.
“What people don’t often know is that the labor force market forecast shows that there’s going to be nearly a 30 percent increase in skilled trade job opportunities over the next three years, and that’s nationwide and in our region,” he said.
The people who are in those trades now are getting to the retirement age, Cornett said, and need trained people to fill the position they will be vacating. Something EKCEP offers to displaced miners is a program called HOME (Hiring Our Miners Everyday), which helps those in search of a job hone in on the skills they have and can use in another job. The program has recently received a $5.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to help it expand to help more miners.
“We have enrolled nearly 500 coal miners already, and the program has really only been up and running since around the first of December. So, that’s pretty fast,” Cornett said.
“In our region a lot of times people can sometimes have a sense of pride that prohibits them from going out and asking for a hand to help,” Cornett added. “It’s just a matter of getting over that hump and realizing that, yes, I need this sort of assistance.”