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Finding Their Voice

Country Music Television and Appalachian Community Colleges Empower communities to overcome economic hardship

By Heather Boerner Community College Journal
December 2014/January 2015

In 2013, Anthony Bowling was months behind on his mortgage, his 401(k) was nearly tapped out, and he d been unemployed for more than a year. The eastern Kentucky native had to choose: uproot his kids from their home to take a coal mining job in Alabama, or go by himself and travel back home to see his wife and teen children once a month.

Luckily, he didn t have to make that choice. At the eleventh hour, a space opened up at Hazard Community and Technical College s (HCTC) electrical lineman certification program. Ten weeks later, Bowling, 48, received his certification and a job offer.

Everything was just down to the last minute, says Bowling, who had worked in the mines for a decade. But the Hazard Community and Technical College program gave me a breath of fresh air.

Out-of-work miners such as Bowling are engaged in the Empowering Education Initiative, a unique alliance between County Music Television (CMT) and community colleges in Appalachia. The initiative, which includes a website and a series of country music concerts, is changing the conversation in the Appalachian region, giving hope to laid-off miners and providing access to job-training programs that hold the promise of a new life for the miners and their families.

Stemming a Crisis
It used to be that when a mine closed in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, good workers in the tight-knit mining community could make a few calls and have a new job the next day. That s how Bowling s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather got through the market cycles of coal production. But that all changed a few years ago.

There was no bounce-back from the last downturn, Bowling says. Now, you can t buy a job in coal mining in eastern Kentucky.

Between August 2013 and August 2014, the 23 counties of eastern Kentucky covered by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, the area s workforce development agency, lost 11,618 jobs. While the region represents only 8 percent of Kentucky s labor force, it accounted for 46.1 percent of the state s employment losses in that period.

Unemployment hovers around 11 percent in eastern Kentucky nearly double the national average of 5.9 percent, as of September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And HCTC s smaller, eight-county service area has the state s highest rates of disability, food stamps and unemployment insurance payouts, Greiner says.
In the last two years, 8,000 coal miners have lost their jobs. Bowling estimates that only two of the 47 mines that used to do Perry County are still in operation.

All of this has left state and local officials scrambling to help laid-off coal miners get new jobs, which often means helping them relocate. Meanwhile, officials are also working to diversity the area s economic base with a variety of skilled manufacturing jobs that could protect the region from single-industry shutdowns. Greiner imagines former coal miners working IT or other jobs and even starting their own companies.

But first, they have to have hope which is exactly where CMT and the local colleges come in.

We had been working very yard at offering retraining programs for coal miners, says Greiner. We struggled, though, with how to reach such an audience. But here was an event that turned out to capture a large audience and really brought home the message that education is another avenue that s reliable for solving your problems.

A New Tune
One a mild Friday in March 2014, laid-off coal miners and their families crowded into The Forum at HCTC to see country music start Courtney Cole, Cole was there not only to entertain but also to encourage coal miners to head back to school.

It was the first of what Lucia Folk, vice president of public affairs for CMT, hopes will be at least five such events in the Appalachian region, featuring different CMT stars, each with the coal of empowering miners to overcome barriers to workforce retraining.

This is an area where artists don t come through it s too small, Folk says. I think it means a lot that we re saying that we care about you and where you live and we want you and your family to be successful.

CMT launched the Empowering Education Initiative after the Bill amp; Melinda Gates Foundation approached CMT s parent company, Viacom. The foundation wanted the media conglomerate to target specialized demographics in an effort to future close the skills gap. CMT teamed up with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in early 2013 to identify a rural community in need of workforce retraining in CMT s target demographic. Appalachia was a natural fit.

The Empowering Education Initiative lives at CMT Empowering The site offers personal stories from country music superstars, such as Carrie Underwood, alongside those of everyday community members who have overcome the challenges of returning to school for career training. The site also features a three-step process that connect visitors with ways to further their education. The first step asks visitors to choose one of the five main roadblocks preventing a return to school and offers solutions to overcome those challenges. The second step helps visitors create an action plan for achieving their goals. The third step connects visitors with community-based resources that can make returning to school possible.

In addition, CMT created a series of branded videos so-called donut holes. The videos, which feature a PSA shot by country music star Dustin Lynch, are customizable to the local college, with a place to advertise specific information about local workforce programs. CMT is making the marketing materials available to 20 colleges in the region. Lynch is a big name in music, but he s also an inspiration.

Dustin is a great example because he s a very successful artist whose family told him he could pursue his passion for music if he finished school, Folk says. He talks about why that s important, and how to makes it easier for him to have balance when he s on the road.

Cole for Coal Miners
But the real (cowboy) boots on the ground come during the community concerts. HCTC s free concert featuring Cole drew about 500 people. Between musical acts, the concert featured a Qamp;A with retrained coal miners and a video of coal miners who had attended the college and now work as electrical linemen, radiologists, and public administrators.

It wasn t long after the concert that local coal miners started showing up at the HCTC admissions office, looking to enroll in classes, say Jennifer Lindon, dean of the college s occupational technologies and workforce solutions. Enrollment in the HCTC auto-tech program nearly doubled, as did enrollment in the college s electrical lineman program and two-year heating and cooling program. When the new school year started this past fall, the numbers remained high.

The entire technical college program is full now, Lindon says. The programs are staying strong, and the guys and ladies are hanging in there.

Tri-County Technical College, in Pendleton, S.C., hopes to emulate this success in April 2015, when the college will partner with CMT to glitz up its annual Bluegrass Under the Stars event.

It used to be that it was hard to get to Appalachia there was no highway system, no infrastructure, says Ronnie Booth, president of Tri-County Community College and a member of the AACC board of directors. We ve built that infrastructure of water, sewer, highways. Now we need to build the workforce.

Anne McNutt, executive director of the Community Colleges of Appalachia, a consortium of the approximately 90 community colleges that serve some portion of the Appalachian range, grew up in Appalachia, and she knows the region s pull and its beauty. She also knows that many people who live here don t come from a tradition of higher education. Together, she says local colleges and CMT are doing something neither could do on their own.

The partnership with CMT helps point the direction and shed the light on educational attainment for people who wouldn t see attaining a community college degree as an option for themselves, McNut says. If we don t see something as an opportunity and sitting right in front of us, we can t see it.

Heather Boerner is an education writer based in San Francisco.

Reprinted with permission