After more than a decade in the coal industry, Lawrence Countian Kennedy Marcum never thought he would utter such blasphemous words.
“Getting laid off was a blessing, honestly,” he admits, adjusting in his seat in the Northeast Kentucky Career Center JobSight offices in Louisa. “I didn’t think a layoff would become a blessing.”
In 2016, Marcum, like many others, believed he’d made it. Finishing up a decade in the industry at the same West Virginia mine his father had worked at for more than 20 years, he was finally settling into what he considered a life-long career.
“When I got the job there, I fell into what I thought was my place, to be a coal miner being the fourth generation,” he says. “I’d made my way up into the salaried departments—I was told that’s where I’d retire they had such a big coal reserve. I thought I was going to be set, but God had different plans.”
Those plans were set into motion when Marcum, along with a number of his coworkers, received their WARN notices of the layoff and were faced with the reality that they were not as set as they had been led to believe.
Shortly thereafter, Marcum took up a job at a local furniture store to help make ends meet for his family. A year into the job, he learned of a mining operation in Indiana that was hiring and decided to jump on the opportunity, although being so far from home for weeks on end ended up being a deal-breaker.
“A friend of mine was working at a mine in West Virginia, and I talked him into letting me come and work with him up there. I thought, you know what, it’s coal mining and I love it. We thought it was going to pan out,” Marcum says.
Lightning struck twice for Marcum, and in March 2019 he was laid off again.
“I started going back through a depression phase in my mind and thinking, being a father and a provider and somebody who tries to give their kids things that I didn’t have, and I thought, I can’t lose my home,” he remembers.
Luckily, things took another unexpected turn pretty quickly for Marcum when he found out about a job fair hosted by his local Kentucky Career Center JobSight.
A partner in the Kentucky Career Center JobSight network of workforce centers, Northeast Kentucky Community Action Program provides Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) services in Carter, Elliott, and Lawrence counties 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, or who need assistance being retrained or going to school.
“I was laid off on a Monday, and my wife saw something about Northeast on Facebook having a job fair that Wednesday of that same week I got laid off,” he explains. “I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I might find a job up there.”
Marcum made sure to be one of the first arrivals at the job fair that Wednesday. He made his rounds at each employer’s table but discovered a different kind of opportunity when he visited the booth for 5 Star Electric, a full service electrical contractor. The company’s representative said miners have skills that transfer well to lineman work, and there could be an opportunity for Marcum with his company.
“He said I’ll give you a job if you go to school, but I need you to go to school,” Marcum says. “I explained to him my situation, that I was laid off and I wasn’t able to pay for school, so he went ahead and got up with JoAnn that’s up at the Northeast office about it.”
Expert career advisor JoAnn Chaffin immediately got to work to see what Northeast could do to help pay for a lineman and fiber optic class offered through Ashland Community and Technical College (ACTC).
“The process was easy and very fast. She helped me with everything. If I didn’t understand something, or I couldn’t spell it, they helped me with just about everything—filling the paperwork out, getting some of the paperwork in to the college,” he explains, adding that it took only a week and a half to get everything squared away since his class was set to start that same month.
Northeast was able to not only provide funding for Marcum’s tuition but also helped him get the supplies he needed to use in his class.
“They helped me get some of the tools that I needed that the school didn’t provide. I was unable to afford them, so I would have had to have just used what I had,” he says. “They helped me with fuel, getting back and forth to school during the week, which was awesome.”
Marcum says his school days were long, 12-hour days—eight hours for lineman classes and four hours across town at another campus for commercial driver's license (CDL) classes.
“It was a busy time . . . which was fine with me to hurry up and get it over with so I could get out and work,” he adds.
A few weeks before graduation, Marcum heard from a company working with the Kentucky Wired project that they wanted to offer him a job.
“They said you’re hired, when you graduate come to work that Monday,” he says, adding that Northeast was able to step in again and help purchase the correct set of boots Marcum would need to start work.
Though his sights were set on working as an electrical lineman with 5 Star, Marcum says he couldn’t pass up a chance at immediate employment after so long without a paycheck. After two weeks on the job, he’d heard back from 5 Star about an open lineman position and turned in his two weeks notice to his employer.
“I went to school to be a lineman, to do electric, and I can always come back to fiber optics later,” Marcum says. “I went with 5 Star and I haven’t looked back.”
Marcum says since becoming a lineman, he’s realized that this may just be his dream job.
“Anybody that works a job that they hate, it really tugs at more than just your emotions,” he says. “If you work at something you love, then when you go to work you don’t dread it.”
Now, instead of being gone from home for weeks or fearing a mass layoff may be around every corner, Marcum enjoys his life completely.
“We can actually keep up with the bills now. I was struggling even working in the mines, but I make real good money now, and I’ve learned so much—I’ve actually learned to be a little bit more humble,” he says. “I’m not out of town as much as I would be mining or something else. We just work three and a half days during the week on a normal week.”
With this new world at his feet, Marcum says he can’t see himself ever going back to coal mining.
“I’ve noticed it doesn’t matter who’s in office, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world. It (coal mining) has its ups and downs, and lineman doesn’t have the ups and downs,” he explains. “Mining comes and goes—it depends on the market. I don’t work for the market now. I work for an industry.”
“I know starting out, my sights are set high, but I never did like being on the bottom of the totem pole long,” he adds.
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 and operates the Kentucky Career Center JobSight network of workforce centers, which provide access to more than a dozen state and federal programs that offer employment and training assistance for jobseekers and employers all under one roof. Learn more about us at http://www.ekcep.org, http://www.jobsight.org and http://www.facebook.com/ekcep.