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How Former Coal Miners Became Mobile Robot Techs

Steve Crowe, The Robot Report

Robots are often viewed as a threat to human jobs and our future. But not in this story.

Matt Neace, 25, was born in Whitesburg, Ky. The small town is located in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and had a population of 1,875 in 2018. It once was known as a “diamond among the coal fields.” Coal mining long was the economic engine that fueled Whitesburg and other parts of the Appalachia region, which spans from southern New York to Alabama and is home to more than 25 million people.

According to the 2010 census, nearly 25% of Whitesburg’s population lived below the poverty line. Like many in the area, Neace was born into the coal mines. His father worked in the mines for 28 years, while his uncles drove coal trucks.

“My whole family was affiliated with the mines,” said Neace. “But I was laid off five times in my 5-plus years in the coal business. You never knew if you were going to have a job or how you’re going to pay the bills.”

Drive two hours north to Warfield, Ky. and 35-year-old Devan Parsons has a similar story. Parsons worked in the coal mines for four years before being laid off and taking a “dead-end job” at a local auto parts store. He lived with his brother-in-law during the week to shorten the commute to the coal mine and would return to Warfield on weekends. Parson’s father drove an 18-wheeler coal truck, hauling coal two hours to the loading docks a couple counties away.

“It’s hard to get a job here,” he said. “The whole place was built on coal mining. If you weren’t in the coal mines, your job was related to mining. The area is struggling right now.”

Robots are often viewed as a threat to human jobs and our future. But not in this story. This story is about how robots are providing former coal miners, like Neace and Parsons, with a second chance and bright future.

Casualties of the 'War on Coal'

Being laid off was part of being a coal miner. Workers would eventually find work at another nearby mine, but that came to a crashing halt in 2008 when regulatory pressure from President Obama forced many coal mines to close. The industry coined this the “War on Coal,” and the business was forever damaged.

Kathy Walker moved to Eastern Kentucky 30-plus years ago from the Washington, D.C. area. She is out of the coal patch herself. For 15-plus years, she was a member of the National Coal Council, a federal advisory committee that helps shape policies about matters relating to coal. She worked for the energy division of the Italian government, purchasing U.S. coal that was then exported to Italy and other European countries. And later she started her own coal sales and marketing company.

“Even before 2008, I could see the train coming down the track with regard to coal,” she said. “There were increasing regulatory and political pressures, and I could slowly see a change coming, driven mainly by the utilities.”

Walker wanted to provide an opportunity for a sustainable future for the people of the region. She researched what types of work might be a fit for the culture and the workforce, and she stumbled upon CNC machining.

“Some people still think machining is your grandfather’s factory job. Well, it’s quite the opposite today,” she said. “21st century CNC machining is high-tech, it’s inspiring and challenging. It takes a little bit of a lot of different competencies to be successful at CNC machining. And what most people never realized about mining is that you must be multi-skilled to be successful at it as well.”

eKAMI re-skills former coal miners

In 2016, Walker partnered with the Gene Haas Foundation, owned by one of the world’s largest machine-tool makers, Haas Automation, to develop a workforce training center to re-skill former miners. Hailing from Youngstown, Ohio, the former “Industrial Heartland of North America,” Gene Haas, Founder of Haas Automation, began working in a machine shop when he was 14 years old. Like the miners of Appalachia, Haas understood the importance of hard work and responsibility at an early age.

To test the miners-to-machinists concept, Walker sent three displaced workers from the industry to the flagship Haas Center at Vincennes University in Indianapolis. The 15-week immersive program was already two weeks underway when the Kentucky students arrived, but the instructors assured Walker they would work on Saturdays to help the new students catch up.

“After a week, the instructor called me and said despite joining late, they were already caught up and actually helping train other students,” Walker said. “The instructor then asked me how many other available people I had like that, and I said, ‘right now, about 10,000.'”

Prior to graduation from Vincennes, the three “pilot” students were hired by Lockheed Martin’s U.S. Special Operations division in Winchester, Kentucky. They put their new CNC skills to work machining parts for the military.

Read the full story on The Robot Report

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