Despite bad coal news, still plenty of room for hope

If you follow ATI on Facebook or Twitter, you likely already know the latest bad news about Eastern Kentucky's coal economy. The region lost 773 jobs between January and March of this year, contributing to a drop in employment of over 38% – and a 42% drop in production – in the past 18 months. (Statewide production remained relatively steady in the first quarter of 2013, thanks to the increase in production at Western Kentucky coal mines.) According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, coal jobs statewide are at their lowest level since 1950 – and 96% of all the coal jobs lost in the last 18 months were from Eastern Kentucky. 

While many of our elected officials point fingers at the EPA, pretending that the problem is permitting and not geology and economics, our miners, their families and their communities are left to figure out what to do now. 

There is room for hope, of course, as there always is. As a recent editorial from the Hazard Herald put it, "Hope is the catalyst for success in life." And that same editorial goes on to describe a very hopeful thing – the Appalachian Teaching and Leadership Network:

Stakeholders in the Appalachian Teaching and Leadership Network (ATLN) are convinced that we can use our “rural genius” to usher in an Appalachian Renaissance, raising educational levels and growing the economy. We have seized upon the innovative Kentucky Work Ready Community program created by the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board as the blueprint to tie education to job growth. The process will organize the communities to improve the quality of life, generate positive publicity for the counties, and enable the Eastern Kentucky Region to be the first “Rural Ed-conomy Empowerment Zone” in the nation….

The process is designed to align education, workforce development, and economic development strategies for the state and within communities by using a collaborative approach. Most importantly, it sets the bar high for educational achievement and college and career readiness, which will encourage communities to creatively and effectively collaborate and use their resources to devise strategies to reach the benchmarks.

The programming includes child and adult education, professional development, work skills, increasing broadband access and, importantly, youth leadership. Too often, youth are left out of this discussion, despite the fact that they are the focus of much adult effort to get them to stay in the region. Programs like Students Transforming Appalachia with Real Solutions (STARS) involve young people in tackling some of the biggest problems in their communities, and was organized in part by the Appalachian Teaching and Leadership Network. 

Of course this is not the only thing needed to rebuild Eastern Kentucky's economy. As the Hazard Herald said, "We in Appalachian Kentucky understand that education is the key to improving the quality of life here. However, it is necessary to have the quality jobs for the educated citizenry. The Appalachian citizenry must create many of the new jobs and not wait for them to be brought here." We need more investment, more (and better) leadership, support for our entrepeneurs and more people willing to do the hard work of crafting a new way forward for our region. But there are myriad other programs and projects happening throughout Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia, from the Stay Project to local food in West Virginia to the Appalachia's Bright Future conference to the thousands of local businesses operating across the region. So as disheartening as the news about the coal jobs can be, it's refreshing to think about all the great things that are happening and will continue to grow across Appalachia.