The path to a college education isn’t made to suit everyone, and Morgan Countian Chase Perry certainly thought of himself as someone not suited for that path when he enrolled straight out of high school.
“I didn’t have the best advisor, I don’t think,” he says as he swivels in a chair in the conference room of the Gateway Community Action office in West Liberty. “Within my second week of going to classes, I felt overwhelmed and thought it wasn’t for me, thought it wasn’t anything I wanted to do—that’s when I dropped out of college and started working with my father as a surface coal miner.”
Perry continued working with his father for a few years before branching out into a career as a corrections officer at a local prison. Five years later, he found himself back in the coal industry and staring at the harsh reality that is the severe up and down swings of the industry.
“I was employed as a surface coal miner in 2014 and I got laid off in May of that year,” Perry explains. “I searched for another job while I was on unemployment, but couldn’t find any work.”
After months of fruitless searching, his unemployment insurance case worker suggested Perry speak with a career advisor at his local Gateway Community Action office in West Liberty about possible retraining options to get him back to work.
Gateway provides Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) services in Morgan and Menifee counties under contract with the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP). EKCEP administers WIOA programs, like the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) program for dislocated coal miners like Perry, in 23 mountain counties and also manages the Kentucky Career Center JobSight network of workforce centers, which provide access to more than a dozen programs and services for job seekers and employers under one roof.
“I had heard something about it, but I wasn’t for sure what the program was or anything,” Perry admits. “I didn’t know there was anything available to dislocated coal miners.”
Perry says he spoke with expert career advisor Cindy Hurt about what his options for retraining would be, however the usual courses weren’t piquing his interest.
“They had short term retraining programs, like a six-month program for people wanting to get a CDL license or EMT training, but that wasn’t something I was interested in,” he says.
Although Perry had decided years ago that college wasn’t the place for him, he says he knew that going back to school was the only way he could be sure to both do something he loved and find gainful employment. The only problem was that at the time, no H.O.M.E. client had ever asked to be assisted with retraining on a college level.
“I was the first dislocated coal miner in the county to come and request that kid of retraining,” he says, smiling.
While his career advisor was making sure he would be able to go back to school, Perry went to the Maysville Community and Technical College to see what degree he would be interested in getting.
“I met with a counselor there and asked her about the different programs they had. That’s when she took me to introduce me to an instructor over the machine tool technology program,” he says.
It was that meeting that cemented Perry’s desire to become an engineer, and he brought that information back to his career advisor who gave him the green light to pursue his associate’s degree at the Maysville campus. He enrolled in January 2015.
“One thing led to another and it just kind of flowed into it, you know. Everything lined up perfectly for me to start into the spring semester,” Perry says.
Perry says at the time there was no way he could have gone back to school on his own.
“The program allowed me to support my family and not have to worry about money while I earned my two-year degree,” he says.
Perry stopped receiving assistance when he attained his associate’s degree from the Maysville machine tool technology program in December 2016. He admits he could have stopped there and started looking for a job, but was lucky enough to be accepted into the 2 plus 2 program at Morehead State University that will pay for the remaining two years of school needed for his bachelor’s degree since he received his associate’s degree from a community college.
“I kind of just weighed my options, and after being at Maysville for two years I found out I really enjoyed being back in school,” he says. “I was doing pretty well, so I figured while the getting was good, while I was doing so well in school, I shouldn’t take a break, I should continue on if I really wanted to do this.”
Now, Perry is working towards his bachelor’s in mechanical and manufacturing engineering at MSU.
“If I hadn’t have had the type of help that I received I would never have even considered going up to the college and trying to see what my options were to retrain into a new career path,” Perry admits. “I think there’s a lot of people that could benefit from this type of help if they’re serious about going to school and trying to better themselves.”
Perry says without the help he received from Gateway, he knows he’d be where many people in the region are finding themselves today.
“I’d probably be working a minimum wage job, trying to still find coal mining jobs more than likely. If I hadn’t found a coal mining job, I’d be working somewhere for minimum wage trying to make ends meet and support my family,” he says.
It’s an easy process, Perry adds, so there’s no reason why anyone who’s wondering about how Gateway can help them shouldn’t talk to a career advisor.
“Come down to Gateway and meet with an advisor and find out what kind of assistance and programs you qualify for,” he says.
EKCEP, a nonprofit workforce development agency headquartered in Hazard, Ky., serves the citizens of 23 Appalachian coalfield counties. The agency provides an array of workforce development services, administers the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) program for dislocated coal miners and their spouses, and is the White House-designated lead organization for the federal TechHire designation for Eastern Kentucky. Learn more about us at http://www.ekcep.org, http://www.jobsight.org and http://www.facebook.com/ekcep.