Harlan County CAA Assists Laid Off Coal Miner Shawn Rigney to Finish College, Stay in his Hometown

Some stories span decades and take years to tell. The story of Shawn Rigney’s career has spanned nearly 15 years so far, and it’s a story the Harlan County native says will continue thanks to the career and employment services offered at his local Community Action Agency.

The former coal miner sits in the conference room of the Harlan County Community Action Agency (CAA) in Harlan, Ky., a jovial smile seemingly cemented on his welcoming face.

“I just knew it was time for me to make a change,” he says, his smile growing wider. “Making a change is something I don’t regret at all.”

Change came for Rigney in March 2015 when he was laid off from his 11-year tenure as a mine emergency technician (MET) and mine foreman at a local mining operation. Though the layoff was a shock, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise, he says, with the near constantly shifting rollercoaster ride that the coal industry had turned into since 2008.

“When I was laid off, I was told that we might be back to work in a couple of weeks because a new company had bought the company that I worked for,” Rigney explains. “I told them that in four weeks, if I don’t know something from you guys, then I’m going back to school.”

Rigney wanted to turn what many in his hometown perceived as a negative into a positive for him and his family by furthering his education and working in a new, more stable industry. Unfortunately, he was not in a situation to make that happen on his own and was unsure where to turn.

“I was in a financial place where I had to have money. I had to have income to be able to pay my bills, and going back to school didn’t seem like a real option. Maybe learning a new trade by working on a job, maybe moving and working in a factory somewhere,” Rigney says.

During this time of intense uncertainty, Rigney went to his local Career Development Office to sign up for unemployment insurance benefits. It was there that he learned of a resource he had only ever heard of in passing but never put much stock in—the Harlan County CAA.

A partner in the Kentucky Career Center JobSight network of workforce centers, Harlan County CAA provides Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) services in Harlan County, under contract with the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP). Those services include programs for adults, dislocated workers, and for in-school and out-of-school youth who may need assistance honing skills such as résumé building or networking with local employers.

Rigney made a call that day to the Harlan CAA and got an appointment with then expert career advisor Jill Blevins. Blevins explained that since Rigney was a laid off coal worker he would qualify for the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) program, which would assist him with the costs of going to college or being retrained for work in a different industry.

With his heart set on becoming a nurse, Blevins advised him to apply for two programs instead of just one to cover all his bases, so he also applied for the respiratory therapist program. In the meantime, Rigney was able to complete his CNA (certified nursing assistant) certification and two full semesters of prerequisite classes for the programs he’d applied for, all with Blevins’ assistance and support.

By the summer of 2016, Rigney found out he’d been accepted into both programs he’d applied for. With his CNA experience and a year’s worth of classes under his belt, he says he was sure by that time that being a nurse wasn’t for him and he really enjoyed the work of a respiratory therapist.

“Without Harlan CAA I never would have realized that that program was for me,” Rigney says, adding that the CAA helped in more ways than just helping him realize his dream. “I got my classes paid for, my books and uniforms, shoes. They helped me all the way. They continued to advise me, and I feel like they advised me well.”

Rigney started the respiratory therapist program in August 2016 and had graduated by May 2018. And while  his path to a new career seemed evenly paved, Rigney says he hit a major bump after graduation.

“After I graduated from respiratory school, I took my boards and passed and got my license. There wasn’t any close jobs available, though, so I went to work for JRL Coal Company,” he explains. “Growing up it was always everybody’s fallback—if I didn’t succeed in what I wanted to do, I’ll go to coal mining. That’s basically what I did.”

But Rigney did not plan to have another long-term relationship with the coal industry. He says he was upfront with his employer, letting them know he was pursuing a job at the ARH Hospital in Harlan and that he intended for his stint at the coal company to be temporary. 

By the new year, Rigney had landed and started his new career at the Harlan ARH as a respiratory therapist, leaving his coal mining work behind.

“It’s a big change from working in the coal mine,” Rigney says with a chuckle. “Now, I’ve figured out that it’s possible to start over in life and have a new career. I really enjoy it—I guess I’ll always have coal mining in my heart, but I still plan on working in respiratory therapy for the rest of my life.”

Rigney says life couldn’t be better. A new job only a seven-mile drive from his home, a happy family, and a secure future laying ahead of him are proof, he adds, that the CAA can work for him and for anyone else that will give it a shot.

“(The CAA) is something that a lot of people would really love to use that they don’t know about. I feel like a lot of people look at it and think, maybe I can’t go back to school, I’ve been out too long and I can’t afford it,” Rigney says, that ever-present smile lighting up his face. “I would definitely advise them to take a look at this program, and take a look at what it really offers—just believe in yourself and try to take the opportunity.”

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.