By Amanda Christopher
The latest economic gut punch to hit the Appalachian region occurred July 1, when Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy, and without warning, shut down operations at its facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Most of Blackjewel’s 1,700 employees were laid off, and the company owes many of them paychecks for work they did before the bankruptcy filing. Blackjewel employed about 480 people in Virginia in 2018, according to state reports.
“I’ve just been getting out and doing odd jobs for people around their houses, just whatever I can do to make a little bit of money,” said laid-off Blackjewel coal miner James Addair, Jr. of Hurley, a tiny coalfields community in Buchanan County, Virginia. “Training for new skills is an option, but to change to doing something completely different, that would be a rough go for a while.”
Southwest Virginia and Mountain Empire Community Colleges participated in job and resource fairs for the laid off miners this summer as state and federal officials came together to provide unemployment and public assistance services, along with opportunities to train for other careers.
“The loss of jobs and the resulting uncertainty have been devastating to our region,” said Vickie Ratliff, VP of Academic Affairs and Workforce Solutions at Mountain Empire Community College. “But the people here are resilient, and we’re proud to support the Blackjewel miners as they transition to new careers.”
MECC Foundation also partnered with the Slemp Foundation to offer tuition, book, and assistance with college attendance for those affected by the Blackjewel closure.
“At Southwest Virginia Community College, we’ve been able to place displaced miners in our heavy equipment operator and welding training Fast Forward programs, which are good fit for the skillsets of those individuals, and are high demand jobs in our region, including in careers outside of the mining industry such as manufacturing and construction,” said Randall Rose, Dean of Workforce & Continuing Education at SWCC.
“Many of the miners are interested in training for CDL’s, heavy equipment, welding and HVAC because those are the professions careers closest to their pay scales. They are not as interested in lower paying jobs because they can’t maintain their quality of life,” said Aleta Spicer, Executive Director of the Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board.
VCCS efforts on behalf of the laid-off miners are part of an overall response coordinated by Virginia Career Works Southwest Region. Other partners include the Virginia Employment Commission, the Departments of Labor and Industry, Adult Education, and Social Services, SWVA Works (WIOA), Stone Mountain Health Services, Appalachian Community Action & Development Agency, the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, and others.
Private partners are stepping up to help too. The Richard and Leslie Gilliam Foundation donated $250,000 to the Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board to provide resources for miners affected by the closure of Blackjewel sites in Lee and Wise Counties. The Board also offered vouchers for children’s shoes for the school year through a donation from Sun Coke Energy. Many other groups and non-profit agencies in the region have reached out to assist the families of Blackjewel employees.
People or groups with resources to offer can contact Aleta Spicer, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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