Economic Development that focuses on both work and life skills

Jan 24, 2020  | 5 min  | Ep4523

Nearly one hundred years ago, coal was the major power source for much of the United States. At that time, there were 800,000 coal miners – about 2 percent of the workforce. A portion of that group was the force behind economic growth in the Appalachian Mountain. 

Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are just over 50 thousand people making their living digging coal from the ground.

Job loss across the region has found miners and others, looking for new ways to make a living.

Producer Peter Tubbs found one job retraining program that focuses on economic and personal development.  @PeterTubbs

Two new carpenters learn mortise and tenon techniques in the wood shop at Coalfield Development in Huntington, West Virginia. They have recently joined a three year program with Coalfield that will teach them more than practical carpentry skills. Originally a general contractor, Coalfield found that employees had needs beyond a paycheck.

Brandon Dennison, CEO, Coalfield Development:  “But as we hired our first crew, we realized that the life challenges our crew members were facing and that the people of southern West Virginia generally are facing are just very, very overwhelming: financial challenges, health challenges, physical health and mental and emotional health challenges.” 

Workers at Coalfield Development’s multiple businesses work an unusual week: 33 hours at their job, 3 hours of personal development classes, and 6 hours of community college. All on the clock.
Brandon Dennison, CEO, Coalfield Development: “One person at a time, you know, we're not going to bring in a hundred people for a week long seminar. It's crews of three to five, but we really get to know them. We really get, we earn their trust, we trusted them and they trust us. And we just work through life challenges as they arise one by one, until slowly but surely we see a person start to really reverse a generational poverty cycle, which is transformational for our region.”

One of Coalfield Development’s companies is a t-shirt manufacturing and printing business. The shirts are made from recycled plastics, and customers can order individualized designed that are mailed directly to their homes.
Barbara Mason previously worked in fast food, but now helps design and print shirts. She finds the personal development classes helpful in her life away from work.
Barbara Mason: SustainU: “Well to me they're kind of like therapy. Um, they really help with our everyday, everyday work, material and stuff like that and really helps us all through struggles like budgeting, stuff like that.”
Much of Appalachia and West Virginia is struggling economically. While the unemployment rate is under five percent, the contraction of the population since 1950 has stunted economic growth and opportunity. For a century coal mining was the largest and highest paying industry. But mechanization and cheap natural gas has reduced the number of coal jobs in the state by 85 percent, leaving a region struggling to reinvent itself both economically and psychologically.
Brandon Dennison, CEO, Coalfield Development: “It is a powerful industry, but it's employment base every decade after decade has, the trajectory has been very clearly on a downward trend. And so, uh, we are working on economic diversification because we have to, if, if our communities are going to survive. And so coalfield development is trying to pioneer and model what a diversified, more sustainable economy can look like.”

The very home of Coalfield Development is part of the reinvention. A century old factory on the west side of Huntington, West Virginia is slowly finding new life. Coalfield is renovating the 90,000 square feet to house its businesses as well as other businesses and nonprofits from the area.
The building provides lots of work for the construction side of Coalfield Development, which leads to personal and educational improvement opportunities for the staff.
Drew Endicott, Coalfield Development: “Yeah, well, I started out, I came straight out of, uh, a coal dock. I was a Sample man. And, uh, my building construction from teacher and high school. He just called me up one day and asked me if I wanted the job and said, well, I'm looking for one. So he sent me to Brandon and I was the second hire Coalfield ever made. I've seen you grow. Just, uh, just like realizing like, it's not just us, it's everybody. It's like community. It just teaches you a lot about respect, uh, volition. I mean, just all the grit, just everything. And I just, it's just nice that there's a company out there that does this stuff.”

The businesses under the Coalfield development banner have spun up organically as needs have been identified. The group has also opened businesses growing vegetables and teaching small-scale farming techniques, as well as a solar panel installation company. 
Ultimately, employees have gained benefits from the 33:3:6 model, moving towards higher work skills and better life habits.
John Ratliff, Coalfield Development: “Because when I've worked five or six different jobs, I haven't found the right one for me. But, uh, when I came in to coalfield, coalfield has taught me what actual respect was because I'd never had a childhood, uh, grow up like at when I entered Coalfield. Coalfield taught me everything that I needed in life and Coalfields the job for me. So I've been with them for about eight months. I learned everything from Coalfield.”

For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs.

Contact: @PeterTubbs

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