The U.S. Department of Labor will issue a total of $6 million in grants to train new coal miners in Kentucky and West Virginia.
Half of that amount will be used to help acquire programs and equipment which will train prospective coal miners at several community and technical colleges throughout the state, including Cumberland's Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.
Other colleges to benefit from the grant include campuses in Hazard, Madisonville and Prestonsburg.
"For there to be an increase in coal production in Kentucky, we must address the issues of permitting and the need for new coal miners," said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
Caylor emphasized the importance of timing as the coal industry is preparing for a massive amount of retirements.
"With the average age of coal miners being around 50, new miner training is critical," he said. "The new federal grant to train new coal miners will have a very positive impact on coal production."
Paul Pratt, dean of community and economic development at SKCTC, also noted the coal industry needs a number of skilled operators to fill those positions which will be vacant with the upcoming retirements.
"We're doing everything we can to respond to the needs of the industry," he said.
When coal declined, Pratt said, several institutions ceased their training.
"But we (Southeast) continued that. We have trained in six states, including Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia," he said.
Pratt said Southeast is not yet sure how the $3 million will be allocated among the colleges chosen for the grant but said the funds will assist in training new coal miners who would be "going under for the first time."
Mining simulators, which give those in training the feel of working on underground and surface mine operations, will be purchased, he said.
The funding will also help train operators to run equipment, shuttle cars and continuos haulage systems, Pratt said. More bulldozers and haul trucks will be purchased for surface operations as well.
With the population in Harlan and surrounding counties now appearing to stabilize, Ross Kegan, vice president of operations at Black Mountain Resources, said he sees employment growing in the coal industry.
"I think it's a reasonable prospect," he said.
The number of coal miners in the county has remained fairly stable for the last four or five years, he said.
Based on the 2002 report of Kentucky Coal Facts, 1,310 was recorded for the number of coal miners employed in Harlan County. That edition also listed 780 employees for Bell County, 908 for Letcher County and 1,442 for Perry County.
Bruce Ayers, president of SKCTC, said the college is "delighted" with the announcement of the federal grant.
The grants are part of nearly $27 million in investments made in support of the nation's energy workforce under the Bush Administration's High Growth Job Training Initiative, according to the Associated Press.