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The decline of coal mining, the economic backbone of eastern Kentucky, has displaced nearly an entire region of workers. Since 2008, the region has lost more than 12,000 direct coal mining jobs, and at least 45,000 indirect jobs related to heavy machinery, transportation, fuel sources, and other supply-chain services.Though typically cyclical, the recent downturn seems more permanent, forcing families who have lived in the area for generations to move in an effort to find work. For the past 30 years, eastern Kentucky has been home to entrepreneur Kathy Walker, who has been searching for a solution for the area’s declining employment.

“The greatest challenge is identifying an industry which can utilize the broad skillset of our miners. Leveraging the assets which we do have, our exceptionally skilled people, provides the foundation for meaningful economic diversification,” Walker says. “In my view, alternatives, which fit the work force, culture, and geographic location increase the opportunities for successful economic transformation. CNC Machining provides that fit.”

Vincennes University

After attending a Skills USA conference in Louisville, Walker learned about the critical need for talented CNC machinists across the nation. With an arsenal of eager, hard-working, unemployed coal miners, Walker sat down with Doug Bowman, director of Vincennes University’s (VU) Haas Technical Education Center (HTEC) and Dave Tucker, vice president for workforce development and community services at VU HTEC in Vincennes, Indiana. Tucker and Bowman teach classes within HTEC’s CNC Machinist Now program at VU, a program designed to prepare veterans and civilian adult learners to become well-rounded, entry-level CNC machinists. The curriculum combines machining theory and extensive hands-on training. The 15-week, or 600 hour, program is designed as an accelerated program of study based on skills needed for a career in CNC machining and manufacturing. The Gene Haas Foundation, created in 1999 by Hass Automation Inc. founder and President Gene Haas, has donated more than $10 million for scholarships in 2016 and developed its curriculum for the H-TEC network of schools with the Indiana Center for Applied Technology and VU’s training partners and experts.

Bowman explains the program offers three areas of focus with short-term training classes to incumbent workers or longer-term, 15-week programs for career preparation. The three study areas are:

  • CNC programming, machining
  • Industrial maintenance
  • Dimensional metrology, also known as quality assurance

Through the program, students have the potential to earn eight National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) credits, while only six are required to pass the program.

“We’re interested in connecing manufacturing employers with trained workers, whether that’s in CNC machining, industrial maintenance, or metrology,” Tucker says. “Also, we’re a resource for middle and high school students to learn about pathways into rewarding careers in manufacturing. Finally, we’re a community resource – a place where people can come together around all things related to manufacturing.”

Walker realized this program fit her criteria for sustainable transformation, converting former eastern Kentucky miners into CNC machinists to develop a new industry for growth. At the time of the meeting, CNC Machinist Now was already in its third week of training, but Bowman and Tucker offered to work with potential eastern Kentucky students on Saturdays to catch them up. Walker agreed, and sent three test students to Indiana in March 2016. Walker worked with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to acquire federal funding for the student’s program cost along with living expenses.

“The initial students I chose were given a mechanical aptitude test, and they passed with flying colors. That week they drove out to Indiana, and Dave and Doug said, ‘Don’t worry we’ll get them caught up,’” Walker says. “The following Saturday, I talked with the instructors and they said my guys were very impressive and already caught up with the program. They ended up graduating at the top of the class, and subsequent classes have done the same.”

Gene Haas Eastern Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute building plans.

Walker says Vincennes University has graduated three classes of eastern Kentucky students, with others graduating in December and January. Much of the tuition for the program is supplemented through government funding and through scholarships from the Gene Hass Foundation. The program is not exclusive to unemployed miners; Walker says displaced oil & gas workers have also graduated from the program.

“The initial three students graduated at the top of the class and they all are now employed by Lockheed Martin near Lexington, Kentucky, as CNC machinists,” Bowman says. “They are performing exceptionally well on the job, according to officials at Lockheed Martin. Five additional graduates have joined the initial three, and 11 more are currently in training.”

Several of the men in training have already been interviewed by Lockheed Martin.

The next step for Walker is opening a HTEC closer to the mining workforce in Paintsville, Johnson County, Kentucky. The Gene Haas e-Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute is scheduled to open in Spring 2017, where she will serve as the institute’s director. Walker, the Gene Haas Foundation, and Gov. Bevin hope to attract manufacturers to eastern Kentucky by retraining the workforce for a new boom of economic growth.

The Gene Haas Foundation has thrown its support behind the project by providing a $1.5 million grant along with the promise of additional grants for tuition aid.

E-Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute

Since sending her initial students to Indiana in March 2016, Walker says several global manufacturers have spoken to her about opening facilities in the area. With the spring 2017 completion of the e-Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute, Walker expects the appeal will only grow.

“With thousands of coal mine and related workers unemployed, the Haas Advanced Manufacturing Institute will mean a fresh start for many of these individuals in the high demand field of CNC Machining,” Bowman says. “It means that the families of those trained at the Kentucky center will not have to move from their homes to find employment. It will have a stabilizing effect on the economy, and it will provide incentives for manufacturing companies to locate in the region.”

At the dedication ceremony at the Gene Haas Eastern Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute, Greg Racicot of the Haas Factory Outlet – Midwest gives a speech with Gov. Bevins (right) and Kathy Walker (left).

Walker says the Gene Haas e-Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute is not exclusive to coal miners or students in the e-Kentucky area. “There have been so many displaced workers along the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania to Alabama who could benefit from this program.

“The people of eastern Kentucky are incredibly excited. This program is a ray of hope in the mountains, generating much optimism. People can see why advanced manufacturing makes sense for the workforce in this region,” Walker notes. “We are all eager to attract manufacturing to this region and create jobs to replace our coal mining losses. We have what many manufacturers are looking for – the exceptional talent, the work ethic, and the motivation.

“The development of the HTEC training center in east Kentucky has been a collaborative effort among many stakeholders with a common passion and goal. We are fitting a round peg into a round hole, focusing on what we do have rather than what we don’t. We’re just tweaking, transitioning, and enhancing that natural skill set into an area with tremendous potential. We have discovered that, as a result of years of our people cultivating skills in the coal mines, we have created a gold mine. We are confident that the miners-to-machinists initiative of east Kentucky will make a meaningful contribution to the manufacturing renaissance in America.”

e-Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute

Paintsville, Kentucky / 606.789.8568

Gene Haas Foundation

Haas Automation Inc.

Haas Technical Education Centers Network

Skills USA

Vincennes University

About the author: Arielle Campanalie, associate editor of Today’s Energy Solutions, can be reached at 216.393.0240 or