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West Virginia Training Program Offers Hope to Unemployed Coal Miners

Mingo County, West Virginia — In West Virginia’s hollers, deep in Appalachia, jobless coal miners are now finding a seam of hope.

“I wasn’t completely sure about my future,” said James Damron, who was laid off two years ago from a mine. 

“I did know I didn’t want to go back in the deep mines,” he added.

Instead, Damron found Coalfield Development, and its incoming CEO, Jacob Israel Hannah.

“Hope is only as good as what it means to put food on the table,” Hannah told CBS News.

The recent boom in renewable energy has impacted the coal industry. According to numbers from the Energy Information Administration, there were just under 90,000 coal workers in the U.S. in 2012. As of 2022, that number has dropped by about half, to a little over 43,500.

Coalfield Development is a community-based nonprofit, teaching a dozen job skills, such as construction, agriculture and solar installation. It also teaches personal skills.

“They’re going through this process here,” Hannah said.

Participants can get paid for up to three years to learn all of them.

“We want to make sure that you have all the tools in your toolkit to know when you do interview with an employer, here’s the things that you lay out that you’ve learned,” Hannah explained.

The program is delivering with the help of roughly $20 million in federal grants. Since being founded in 2010, it has trained more than 2,500 people, and created 800 new jobs and 72 new businesses.

“Instead of waiting around for something to happen, we’re trying to generate our own hope,” Hannah said. “…Meeting real needs where they’re at.”

Steven Spry, a recent graduate of the program, is helping reclaim an abandoned strip mine, turning throwaway land into lush land.

“Now I’ve kind of got a career out of this,” Spry said. “I can weld. I can farm. I can run excavators.”

And with the program, Damron now works only above ground. 

“That was a big part of my identity, was being a coal miner,” Damron said. “And leaving that, like, I kind of had to find myself again, I guess…I absolutely have.”

It’s an example of how Appalachia is mining something new: options. 

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