Special to the Enterprise
Gary Whisman is no stranger to coal. He was raised in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky, got his first job at a coal tipple when he was 16, worked with his father in the mines, and continued his career in the coal industry in Virginia’s coal fields working as a mine rescue team director and coal miner trainer. As deep as the coal seams run in the Appalachian Mountains, so does Whisman’s love and respect for the industry run in his own veins.
“It’s definitely in the blood,” Whisman said. “Coal raised me, and it’s raising my family. This industry is a huge chunk of our heritage and history, and I firmly believe it’s going to be a big part of our future. I’ve not given up on coal. The industry has meant too much to my family, community, and state to not continue to support it and play and active role within the industry today.”
While the coal industry may be facing a current slump due to the growing popularity of natural gas prices and a mild winter that led to coal stock piles, Whisman remains optimistic about the future of coal and is eager to lend his expertise in the effort of producing the industry’s next generation of efficient, highly-trained and skilled coal miners. His new post as the Kentucky Coal Academy’s Executive Director has given Whisman the opportunity to promote cutting-edge technology to today’s miners, providing career pathways for the workforce that lead to more advanced and rewarding positions within the industry.
“The one thing I want to instill within coal miners today, and really the public as a whole, is that coal mining is not your pick and shovel job anymore,” Whisman said. “It has greatly advanced through the years. It’s a technologically advanced profession that requires good training and education. Coal mining today is cutting edge, and coal miners have boundless opportunities to advance as much as they want to, even on up to an engineering level. The industry will always have booms and busts, but a highly trained miner who possesses a diversity of skills will always have a job – and a good-paying job at that.”
The Kentucky Coal Academy is a mine training program that is offered under the direction of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System. Four academies operate at four KCTCS colleges including Southeast, Big Sandy, Hazard and Madisonville. The program, however, is based out of Southeast at the Cumberland Campus. Since its inception in 2005, the Kentucky Coal Academy has trained and produced over 50,000 coal miners who have secured substantial and well-paying jobs. The intent of the Kentucky Coal Academy is to operate an open entry and exit, statewide training program to meet the workforce needs of the coal industry. As the coal industry has matured, its workforce, however, has begun to age. It is expected that half of Kentucky’s coal miners will reach retirement age in the next five to seven years. The Kentucky Coal Academy’s mission is to educate and train the coal workforce of the future, to create and sustain jobs in the coal industry, to provide career pathways for miners from high schools and technology centers, to promote safety, and to also improve the general image of the coal industry as a whole through marketing initiatives.
Whisman assumed leadership duties of the Kentucky Coal Academy on Aug. 1, 2012. Since his appointment, Whisman has aggressively worked to continue the program’s state-of-the-art mining simulator training while implementing new endeavors. He’s currently working on making it possible for coal miners in neighboring states like Virginia to undergo Kentucky Coal Academy training while maintaining certifications in their home states. Another goal of Whisman is to build a partnering relationship with the University of Kentucky’s School of Engineering by providing more Kentucky Coal Academy degree programs that lead to transfer opportunities with the University.
“We are extremely pleased to have Gary join us as Director of the Kentucky Coal Academy,” said Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College President Dr. Bruce Ayers, who also serves as Chairman of the Kentucky Coal Academy Board of Directors. “As the former director of the mine training program at Mountain Empire Community College in Virginia, he brings a wealth of real-world experience to the position. We believe he will provide outstanding leadership as we continue to work to meet the training needs of coal mines and coal miners throughout Kentucky.”
Whisman is a native of Harlan County, Ky, and has worked nearly 40 years in the coal industry, gaining his expertise not only in eastern Kentucky’s coal fields, but southwest Virginia’s as well. He began his career within the industry at the young age of 16, working alongside his father, Fred, at Karst Robbins Coal Company near Holmes Mill. Whisman eventually moved to Keokee, Va. where he started his family and continued his coal mining career, which has been marked by numerous awards, accomplishments, and recognitions in both mine training and safety. After most recently completing a 14-year stint in Virginia as Mountain Empire Community College’s Coordinator of Mine Training, Whisman now brings his mastery of coal mining knowledge to the Kentucky Community & Technical College System as the Executive Director of the Kentucky Coal Academy.
Whisman’s career span in coal mining includes tipple work when he was a teenager at Karst Robbins Coal Company. In 1978, he began his long career with Westmoreland Coal Company in Big Stone Gap, Va. where he worked his way up to trainer as well as the director of the operation’s mine rescue team. When Westmoreland closed its Virginia operation in 1995, Whisman became an electrician and trainer for Bristol Compressor for three years before assuming the position as Mine Training Coordinator at Mountain Empire College in 1998.
“We’re real fortunate to have a leader like Gary Whisman with the Kentucky Coal Academy now,” said Murrel Dixon, who heads up the mine training program at Southeast. “I’ve known Gary for a good number of years, and he has always been extremely dedicated and passionate when it comes to coal mining. He’s made coal mine training and safety his life’s calling, and it’s evident by the high number of quality coal miners he’s produced for our workforce.”
Whisman is passionate about quality miner training and safety advocacy because of his father, who was killed in a roof fall in 1974. While the tragedy didn’t faze Whisman from making a career out of coal mining, he did say, however, that it made him the fighter he is today.
“I’ve carried my father’s loss with me my whole life, and will always carry that tragedy with me,” Whisman said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him or appreciate what he did for his family. That’s why I work so hard to this day. I want our coal miners to receive the best training they possibly can and to come home safe every day to their families.”
Whisman lives in Keokee, Va. with his wife Rebecca, and 12-year-old daughter, Emily. For more information about the Kentucky Coal Academy, log onto http://coalacademy.kctcs.edu. Whisman can be contacted my calling (606) 589-3117 or (606) 733-9129, or by emailing email@example.com.