The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

January 8, 2013

Program helping former miners retrain

MONTGOMERY — Kim and Robert Ruff are looking for some stability. In June of last year, Robert was laid off from Progress Coal’s mine in Whitesville. Ever since, he and his co-workers have been bouncing from job to job, dodging layoffs amid a weak coal market.

“You might work a month and get laid off again,” he said. “It’s not a very stable job. Mining is slowly dwindling down. There’s not much left.”

But now the Fayetteville couple is enrolling in a program for miners and their families that provides $5,000 for retraining in high-demand fields.

Robert is looking into diesel tech and Kim wants to pursue a career in law.

On Monday, they met with representatives from the UMWA Career Center and Bridgemont Community and Technical College to fill out an enrollment application.

Kim encouraged other miners to look into the program as she flipped through Bridgemont’s course catalog, looking at the estimated salaries for various jobs. Today the couple will visit New River Community and Technical College to compare programs.

“A coal miner is resourceful. They’re like MacGyver,” said Brett Dillon, director of the UMWA Career Center.

“The older ones think it’s all they can do, but if you sit down and talk to them, you’ll be amazed what kind of transferable skills they have.”

Dillon estimated 3,000 miners have been laid off in southern West Virginia in the past year.

His organization obtained a National Emergency Grant from the Department of Labor, which provides funding assistance in response to large economic events that cause significant job losses.

The program provides each participant $5,000 toward training, labs, books and tools and up to $100 per week in travel expenses.

Participants can use the money to attend a community college, vo-tech or trade school in high-demand occupations like welder, pharmacist tech, lineman, criminal justice, dental hygienist, diesel technician, licensed practical nurse or nursing assistant.

They can work on an associate’s degree, finish a bachelor’s degree or complete another certificate program. Training must be completed by the end of June 2014.

Dillon said 200 applicants have been interviewed and almost 80 ended up registering in the program since it began.

“They have to come away with something in hand that’s going to help them get a job and be marketable,” said Tim Nibert, a career counselor at the UMWA Career Center.

If it weren’t for the program, two miners who were studying electrical engineering at Bridgemont would have had to quit school when they were laid off from the mines, said Joyce Surbaugh, director of Enrollment at Bridgemont.

“It’s a very beneficial program, and people should take advantage of it,” she said.

Bridgemont has seen several laid-off miners enroll in school as a way to cope with the changing labor market.

Convincing laid-off miners to take the first step toward applying for school can be a challenge.

“Some of them are older and they are scared,” said Surbaugh.

But they shouldn’t be, said Dillon. “We sit down and talk to these people and pick their brain for something they’ve always wanted to do, or something they did in the mines that could be an easy transition,” he said.

In walked two men who were laid off from the Georgia Pacific plant in Mount Hope in 2010. They enrolled at Bridgemont to retrain in engineering, as did 25-30 of their former co-workers. Surbaugh called them “living proof” that workers can successfully make the transition into school.

Larry Taylor of Oak Hill holds down a 3.9 GPA and said he enrolled in community college to try to find work “where you’re not out there killing yourself for $10 an hour.” Though it was a little hard at first, he’s doing just fine now. Scott Cox of Fayetteville said he treats school like a job, and that helps.

To be eligible, you must be a miner who was laid off after March 1, 2012, and received a Worker Adjustment and Retrainment Notification (WARN). Spouses and adult dependents of miners may also apply to participate. Both union and non-union workers are eligible.

Dillon said even if you don’t meet these requirements, his door is always open and he does whatever he can to “serve all coal miners” in difficult situations.

He also refers people to WorkForce West Virginia.

“If you’ve ever wanted to do anything else, now is the time. You’ve got nothing to lose,” said Dillon.

For more information about the retraining program, contact Nibert or Dillon at 304-253-3772.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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