"There's nothing here no more," Cy said, leaning against a railing. The corners of his eyes creased beneath his baseball cap. He and his son didn't have their hearts set on mining; they were hoping to land jobs at the
It's never been easy to make a living in central Appalachia's narrow valleys. Without coal, it's become a whole lot harder. Mining jobs were some of the best-paying in the area, and the industry supported an array of other professions, from truck drivers to personal injury lawyers.
Today about 9 percent of eastern Kentuckians are out of work. Thirty percent live in poverty, according to the most recent federal statistics. Rates of drug overdose deaths, cancer, diabetes and disability are high.
So eastern Kentuckians are left weighing their options. Some laid-off workers are leaving and others are retraining for jobs in fields such as electrical work and nursing. But reinvention isn't for everyone. Some locals are too old, sick or poor to restart their lives somewhere else. And retraining isn't a surefire way to get a new job in a place where so few employers are hiring.
Local leaders have been doing everything they can to increase jobs in industries such as health care and retail and to attract new industries that pay well. Trump's election won't stop those efforts, said
"There is no question--no question--that we only get one shot at transforming this economy right now. We have one shot," Stephenson said.
Stay or Go?
The economic situation in eastern
It turns out that a lot of people are packing up. "People are leaving their homes. They're not renting them, they're not selling them, they're just leaving them," Blackburn said. Families keep calling the local utility company and asking it to turn off their power, he said.
But that doesn't mean they're moving far. Most of the people who packed up their homes in one of the roughly 30 counties in eastern
"People are staying because they're either dedicated to the mountains, the place, and their family, or they're kind of trapped," said Mil Duncan, a sociologist who has studied Appalachia.
Williamson's bitter prescription makes the most sense for young people and those with skills and financial resources.
"Then you've got people like my father, who just lost his job a few weeks ago," Bentley said when we spoke this summer. Bentley's father is almost 60 and close to paying off his house. He feels tied to his property, yet stuck in a place where few jobs pay above the minimum wage.
"There's a lot of people like that, you know, who have worked in the mine for 20-plus years," Bentley said. "And they feel like leaving is worse than staying."
It's not just laid-off miners who feel stuck.
"If you're not working at the hospital or the college, good luck," Wilson said.
She and her husband have talked about leaving, she said. But her husband has a good job. Their kids are in high school. Wilson's elderly father lives in a nursing home nearby. "I can't just up and leave," she said.
Because the cost of living in Appalachia is low, it's possible to just give up the job search altogether. Some people can find a way to get by without working, typically with a mix of odd jobs, help from family, savings and government assistance.
Church has already retired. Over his 25-year mining career, he said, he broke 15 bones and herniated 11 discs in his spine. Sitting for 20 minutes straight is excruciating. "Who would hire me?" he asked.
His wife suffers from a painful muscle disorder and also doesn't work. Church was stretching the disability checks that he and his wife receive to also support their son and grandson.
Despite its economic struggles, there is a lot to love about eastern
Church did move away once, in the '80s, to be a deputy sheriff in
Stephenson, the community college president, gets riled up when he hears people say that there are no jobs left here.
When we met in his office he had just wrapped up a phone call with one of the lead administrators at the
The health care sector is growing in eastern
But retraining workers isn't a complete solution to the local jobs crisis -- overall, employers are laying off more people than they are hiring. Two hundred nursing jobs won't replace thousands of lost mining jobs.
And getting job seekers to switch careers -- let alone go back to college -- isn't easy. The career advisers at the
For many laid-off workers, starting a new career that allows them to stay in eastern
"I got lucky, because everybody's going to Wal-Mart," Crider said, kicking back in the room's sole barber chair with a smile.
Reflecting on his new life, Crider is cheerful. But he knows his circumstances have changed. "I don't even make a quarter of what I was making. I mean, I make a living, but it's not comparable to what I was making," he said. More recently, business has fallen as people have lost their jobs or moved away.
Many graduates of Big Sandy, which is named for a tributary of the
Big Sandy is training some people for jobs that don't exist here yet, but local leaders are trying to encourage those industries to come to the region.
The college also just welcomed the first 50 students into a computer coding program, operated in partnership with the
Local leaders such as Blackburn also have been working to build up retail and tourism and to lure manufacturers and other blue-collar employers to the region with a mix of sweet talk and financial incentives.
Jobs are still so scarce in some places that the
It's not always easy to get teachers and principals on board, Green said, but students love these projects.
Locals are angry and "grieving" over the demise of the coal industry, said
This Story is Part Three of Help Wanted: Why Willing Workers Aren't Filling Open Jobs.
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