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Appalachian College Students Look for Job Opportunities Beyond Coal

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PIKEVILLE, Ky. - Colleges and universities in central Appalachia are struggling to retain students. Roughly half the freshmen at the University of Pikeville don’t come back the following year. For the students who stay, many wonder if there will be jobs available in a region that for decades relied on coal mining as its primary industry.

“We feel like if you can teach them in the mountains, train them in the mountains, they’ll stay in the mountains,” says James Hurley, President-elect of the University of Pikeville.

Hurley has a deep love of central Appalachia. He grew up in Hazard, Kentucky and earned his undergraduate degree from what was then Pikeville College.

A Coal Dependent Region

Hurley has goals of boosting student recruitment and retention, but he’s also concerned about where UPike students will go after graduation. And he’s keenly aware of the effects declining coal production are having across eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

“It’s really caused some financial strains on central Appalachia. So as a higher education institution, we have to think about ways that we can help aid the economy.”

Over the past 20 years coal production in central Appalachia has declined more than 35 percent, and the EPA projects that slide to continue, resulting in mines being idled and thousands of jobs lost.

Business major Andrea Robinette was raised just 20 minutes away from UPike. Her father worked in the coal mines and her mother runs a flower shop. She loves to travel, and Andrea spent her spring break visiting New York and Miami.

“I love all these big cities, but honestly it’s like after three or four days, I’m really ready to come home.”

That homesickness has Andrea worried about when it’s time to find a job. She knows she’ll likely have to leave the Appalachian region if she plans to find gainful employment.

“Opportunities are limited here and there’s better companies and more opportunities away from here. I hate saying that, but for sure I will not stay around here,” Andrea says.

A Changing Economy

“Lots of things [are] happening here in Pikeville, we just have to find the niches and how each of the counties around us fit in,” says Jared Arnett, President and CEO of the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber works to support businesses across an eight-county region. He says more work is being done to stimulate economic growth and development, so young people with college degrees don’t have to leave.

But Arnett admits that effort probably should have started decades ago. Now eastern Kentucky is trying to attract the same companies as other parts of the state.

“You never had to go out and recruit a coal company to mine coal. They showed up and mined it. So all of a sudden we’re looking at a position where we’re having to compete with these other regions for the same projects. And we’ve never had to do that before.”

Arnett says now more than ever the chamber of commerce is working with the University of Pikeville to help build the economy. Community leaders need find a way to educate a future workforce and make it appealing for graduates and entrepreneurs to stay. 

“You have to tie in with your local university because if you’re going to recruit industry, you have to connect the workforce that you’re training with the need of the industry,” says Arnett.

Medicine in the Mountains

One of the industries growing in central Appalachia is healthcare, which is why UPike has invested heavily into its College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“They try to get kids that they know what to stay here, so they can have more doctors here,” says freshman M’Kayla Hughes of Belfry, Kentucky.

M'Kayla plans to enroll in the medical school. A lot of her high school friends wanted to leave eastern Kentucky, but it’s the culture and way of life that are keeping her in the area.

“They wanted to get to a bigger city, do something bigger and better. They just didn’t feel like small little Pike County could provide that for them. But that’s what I like about it; I like the small community feeling where you know everybody, so that’s why I want to stay here.”

Business leaders and officials at UPike say the economic climate is changing in Appalachia, but add that there will always be a connection to coal mining. Last fall, a new $40 million building that houses the medical school opened on campus, and it’s called the Coal Building.

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