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Coal mining was once a reliable career in Eastern Kentucky, but with jobs in that industry dwindling, many residents of the region are looking for other options. A new training program in Paintsville is helping former miners prepare for 21st century jobs.

The Eastern Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute, known as eKAMI, is an answer to the question of how to put coal country’s labor force back to work.

“There was a critical need to diversify the economy and identify an industry where we could leverage the skills of our exceptionally talented people,” says Kathy Walker, director of eKAMI.

Walker sought support from the private sector in order to make eKAMI a reality, and she found it in Gene Haas, founder of HAAS Automation.

“Gene Haas is the number one American manufacturer of machine tool equipment,” says Walker. “Gene is originally from Youngstown, Ohio. That’s a steel mining area so he understands the demographic of the Eastern Kentucky mining community.”

Haas created a training program for his company’s factories. It was originally established to train veterans for careers in advanced manufacturing, but was later expanded to help train others for careers in the industry.

“When you think about manufacturing as it used to be, you think about the old style of mill or lathe and it was a dusty, dirty environment. It was really hard work,” says Eric Thomas, an instructor at HAAS eKAMI. “When you look at the modern manufacturing environment with the CNC machines, you’re looking at a lot cleaner environment. You’re looking at students who have high skills working with computers. Everything’s designed on the computer. They have to be able to program. They have to understand the coding language.”

“This is state-of-the-art equipment,” says Walker. “This is what our graduates from this program will be seeing at the new advanced manufacturing businesses in Kentucky or around the globe. This is what 21st century businesses are using and our people will be able to set up, operate, and program these machines when they leave here.”

Walker adds that former miners usually have an easy time transitioning into advanced manufacturing careers. As miners, they have to learn to solve problems in challenging situations with limited resources, and she believes that problem-solving skill transfers naturally into advanced manufacturing.

“As a coal miner, the industry’s always up and down. There are layoffs,” says HAAS eKAMI instructor Kevin Jennings. “But in this industry there’s anywhere in the world I can go to work, any state in the United States. The possibilities are limitless.”

Justin Cornett graduated from the HAAS eKAMI program and landed a job with Lockheed Martin in Winchester. But he was drawn back to Paintsville to give back to the community as an eKAMI instructor.

“This community right now still depends on the coal mines,” Cornett says. “Hopefully with my knowledge and the knowledge of this school, they can pass on manufacturing knowledge and get industries interested in Eastern Kentucky.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2404, which originally aired on October 27, 2018. Watch the full episode.