Miners No More: Community Colleges Help Relieve Appalachia's Dependence on Coal

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Miners No More: Community Colleges Help Relieve Appalachia's Dependence. on Coal

by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

BIG STONE GAP, VA -- Charles Ashwood served in the Army for 20 years before settling near here, where his wife grew up. The only job open to him is in the local fast-food joint.

In the region where coal mining reigned as the dominant industry for the last century, reduced demand and better technology have caused in a devastating loss of jobs that ruined the region's economy. A minimum wage is all many mountain residents can hope for.

But Ashwood, 43, chose a route more and more Appalachian residents are taking to improve their employment and earnings potential -- a college degree. He is currently working on a liberal arts degree at Mountain Empire Community College (MECC). Like most of the people here, economic hardships and family responsibilities make unlikely the possibility of his attending a four-year university away from home.

For thousands of students, MECC represents the only realistic access to higher education. It is also a major component in the region's attempt to attract new and more diverse industries by developing a skilled workforce.

Joining more than 45 presidents and representatives from two-year institutions in 12 states who gathered recently in Gatlinburg, TN, for the fourth annual conference of the Community Colleges of Appalachia, MECC officials and administrators voiced their concerns over their troubled area.

"The region that we serve is characterized by high unemployment . . . because of the history of the area, the people generally have low educational attainment," said Sharon Fisher, MECC spokeswoman. "For us to bring in jobs that are good manufacturing jobs, that are technology based, it's just absolutely critical that our population have the skills that they can have a good quality of life and do the type of work that is emerging now."

Everyone Hit Hard

Otherwise, residents must seek jobs outside the region, as Ashwood plans to do. The problem is especially prevalent in the African American community, which makes up from 1 percent to 3 percent of the population, according to Dr. Ron Eller, director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky.

"The Black communities in this region . . . have declined dramatically in the last 20 years due to the out-migration of young people."

Eller said since the number of Blacks is so small to begin with, any loss of population hits hard.

"We face a real crisis in the minority population in the region in terms of trying to find opportunities for employment that would keep young people at home. . . . The unemployment rate among Blacks is higher than [that of] whites. . . . In the Black communities, the numbers are smaller and opportunities fewer. When young people leave, it is devastating."

Blacks migrating from rural counties of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina settled in the mountains of Appalachia at the dawn of this century, drawn by the promise of jobs in the thriving coal-mining industry. They settled in the hollows, creating tiny enclaves in the predominantly white region that stretches from northern Alabama and Mississippi to Ohio and New York State.

They, like most miners, thrived during the industry's boom years, bulldozing the sides of mountains in strip-mining operations or descending through caverns to chisel away at underground deposits.

However, two decades of drastic decline in the industry have resulted in unemployment rates that rank among the highest in the nation. …