Digging Deeper: By Dan Heyman
Jared Blaylock is a 31-year-old former coal miner from Williamson in the middle of changing to a new career with the help of the Coalfield Development Corporation. The Coalfield Development program combines payed work on one of a number of projects – for example, remodeling low-cost housing, or building high-end cabinetry – with community college classes and life skills training.
Blaylock is a few weeks away from getting his two year degree, but he says the hardest part has been struggling to keep a positive attitude when surrounded by the at-times depressing reality of poverty, hopelessness and drugs in southern West Virginia. He says it would have been very easy for him to give up and fall into drug abuse, but he says the job training program at Coalfield Development helped him focus on the future and stay positive.
The questions have been edited for length and clarity, the answers have only been lightly edited for clarity.
WV Strong: So, tell us your a little bit of your work history.
Jared Blaylock: I got out of high school and work, went to college briefly but wasn't, I was 17, 18 years old. I wasn't really ready for college I guess at the time. I moved away, I moved like three hours away from home and I wasn't really ready for college. So I come back home. And of course I start to work and I started off getting my first job at the local Magic Mart and work there maybe a year and a half. So by the time I'm 20 I go into the mining industry.
Things were going fairly well for me, making good money, every day work. And so by the time I think I was 22 – from the time I was 20 to 22 then I experienced my first lay off. But there were still mine jobs around, it was just where I was at. So then I went and took some training and got some, I was on surface those first two years. It took, well I'm going to go underground to work. Then I went and got my certificates and my training. And so I begun underground mining for a period of three to four years and then at this time I go from 22 to 27.
And I got laid off again. And then this time when I got laid off at 27 there was no other mining jobs to go to. I was just, I felt left behind, I mean honestly. I was stuck in a poverty struck town with minimum wage jobs, no opportunity. Then I was at the point where, I drew my unemployment from getting laid off from the mines. And then I got to a point to where I could hardly pay, you know, I think had got $3000 left on my truck payments and stuff. I got to the point where I was taking anything you could get.
I done worked two jobs, worked at a 7-11 gas station run the cashier and stocking, security guarding at the local hospital on the weekends. It was putting in 60 hours a week to make very little pay. I toughed out through that and then I found the organization I'm with now. You know I was 29 years old when I found Coalfield. I've been here two years. And they offered me decent pay. You know, better than minimum wage. Not of course what I was making coal mining. But decent pay and an opportunity to pursue college again.
And this time when of course compared to when I was 17 or 18 pursuing college I was a lot more serious and it really wanted to do it cause I've come to a point where I realized how valuable education is. And I've excelled in college – my GPA is somewhere around 3.5 or 3.6 right now and I'm currently on my last semester of having a two year degree in technical studies from Southern West Virginia Community College.
WV S: Coalfield Development Corporation – how did you hear about it?
JB: I like to work out and I was always into sports and stuff, and I go to the local gym in Williamson. And there's this guy in the office in the back and he just, the guy's always busy on these computers hanging out and I didn't really see any workers but Coalfield had an office there. He was kind of he was their president for the what they what we call Revitalize Appalachia. And I approached him and said 'hey man what are you doing in here?' And he explained Coalfield whole thing of training going to college, life skills. And I showed him you know my work experience told me you know my work experience would be in the mines and just overall there are you know since I've got out since I got put of school I had a job. It was like maybe two weeks later I was hired. I had a job with them and I kind of just kicked it off with them on get an education.
I tell people one thing that half the people will say what had you do it or how did you do it? And it's really fighting through the struggle. It's is fighting through the struggles of your community and you can't let... you have to keep an open mind and stay really keep a positive mindset. You can't let your environment hold you back. And I've really thought of that's what I hardest each day is keeping a positive mindset. So and I always try to think to myself 'stay positive, stay positive, keep going, keep going.' And you know, it's and it's all working out. It's just it's just a daily grind day to day, it's a day to day grind of staying positive and just keep keep working, keep your focus on the task at hand.
WV S: So as part of Coalfield Development Corporation what did you do with them? What did they have you do? There was a process there. So how did it go?
JB: We work on a 33, six, and three schedule and it's 33 I do 33 hours of construction work a week on different projects. We go to school six hours a semester or two classes, a semester. And you do three hours of life skills. That is your weekly schedule.
WV S: And life skills like?
JB: How to manage your money, how to balance a checkbook. Professionalism, courage. Yeah, life skills. I mean they're polishing your life skills up. It's things that you need to know and really take care of to be successful in life. Without life skills, you could be a genius but not know how to apply it, maybe.
WV S: Did you feel like that was worthwhile? Did you get a lot out of that, or get anything out of the life skills training?
JB: Yeah, I mean it's helped me, it helps me stay positive. And education comes from where I was at 17 from getting out of high school till now. I've realized that you've got to have them life skills. And I've realized how valuable education is. I mean I had a boss in the mines tell me this, and it's stuck with me. He looked at me one time and said 'knowledge is power. Knowledge makes you successful.' And it's 100 percent correct.
WV S: You know power in the mines is a very different kind of thing. You're thinking 'oh well that's a powerful piece of machinery. I'm a strong man I can move these you know roof timbers or blocks or whatever.' That's power but above this above the ground in professional life it's a very different kind of picture. Power is kind of different.
JB: No, not necessarily. You that you have miners that are very intelligent. I mean the superintendent runs the mine is a very intelligent man. And that's who said that to me. He was, at my age he was preaching to me that you know he was giving me tip. And here I am six years later I realize that.
WV S: Let's talk a little bit about Coalfield Development a little further, because so you have this schedule where you're working and you're taking academic classes and you're taking life skills classes. What kind of work were you doing? You said it's construction work.
JB: Yes sir. It's laying flooring, installing new kitchens, bathrooms so it's all here. Yeah, plumbing. Little bit of plumbing.
WV S: Residential kind of work?
JB: Yeah, residential type of construction.
WV S: So they're building houses.
JB: We have built a house, but we are more, I've done more remodel, low income. We've built, in Wayne they built a nine apartment low-income building to help people in need, handicapped some of the apartments are even handicap accessible. I'm remodeling, I believe a low income apartments right now. Yeah and it's a good thing. So it's a good thing for the housing market of southern West Virginia.
WV S: It works at both ends. You're helping people...
JB: You're helping people and getting training and I'll help myself get a degree at the same time.
WV S: Had you done any kind of construction work before this or was this new to you.
JB: Actually just construction end, yeah it was new to me. But I had acquired a bunch of basic work skills from mining history. So kind of just came natural, swinging a hammer, using a tape measure, using a saw. Natural, natural handwork.
WV S: So what kind of degree?
JB: Technical studies degree, which is your math your English your science. With about three or four different business classes and your work is added into that and that equals a technical studies degree.
WV S: What are you going to, what are you going to do with it when you get it? Do you know?
JB: I plan on continuing my education into the electrical work, engineering fields. I may have to go to Marshall for that. You know, I'll probably had to leave the community college aspect of it and step up to a four year college. But hey, I'm halfway to a bachelor's. That's one thing I do like about the program they chose is you have no wasted classes. All your classes that you took at your community colleges transfer directly in towards a bachelor's degree at a four year college. So you didn't waste your time.
WV S: Right. And you've got no debt.
JB: You have no debt.
WV S: So that's nice.
WV S: So you know now like you didn't know when you were 17 what it takes to be to get a degree and to why you would want to do that now and what college is for. I mean you get a lot of 18-year-olds who go to college and they think it's it's just a chance to go out drink on a weekend. I mean so you're thinking about electrical work or...
JB: Some kind of engineering field.
WV S: Some kind of engineering.
JB: Some kind of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering. They preach you know to dream big I mean to go for it. You'll you'll never know if you don't go for it. What you can, what you can do with your life or what you're capable of.
WV S: Do you know, if you if you would be able to, ow much would it cost for you to go to Marshall? Have you...
JB: I haven't looked into that. I know how every person's available for so much financial aid you know. And, but I haven't looked at that. Obviously I know it'll cost more for me to do that than at Southern Community College. But it's worth it, it's worth the risk. You've got to go for it and you got to buckle down. You've got to handle your business.
WV S: Right. Got to do your homework.
WV S: So we were talking a minute ago about how your life path maybe has differed from some maybe some of the people that you grew up with. You're obviously very focused and kind of driven and that's been accelerated by the Coalfield Development. Part of it is that you were one of those people who chose to take the, to go to the Coalfield Development folks.
JB: Yeah I saw an opportunity.
WV S: And you are taking advantage of it. Do you think that the other folks that you knew growing up growing up would do that? Or did they not see that as necessary?
JB: Some could. But you have to really, to understand that question you really have to come to my area.
WV S: Tell us about that. Because that's I mean this is kind of what I'm getting at.
JB: Yeah, I mean you're looking at an area that is, I mean we all know about the opioid crisis.
WV S: Pilliamson.
JB: Yes. We all know about that, and we all know how depression can affect, you know it takes effect on the human brain. And I just see a lot of hopelessness. I see a lot of people that's given up. They don't have that positive mindset of 'hey I need to get out here and do this.' I don't see 'hey, I need to make something of myself.' But there is, good jobs are not in your area. And there's one thing that can give people hope and that's a good job. I mean people need to make people need a way to make a living. And in southern West Virginia it's just not there. I mean you have some mines running and those are good jobs but it's just not to the number that it needs to be to support these communities. The way these communities used to be.
And you know Williamson at one time was a AAA school. When it shut down in '07, '08 and even when I graduated in 2005 I graduated with 33 students. Williamson used to be a high school with probably 3000 students. I graduated with 33 students in my class. I mean people there's no jobs. People are moving. Businesses. There's, there's hardly any businesses in the town of Williamson, West Virginia anymore. Got few places to eat and a bunch of lawyers' offices and doctors' offices. There's no opportunity for jobs.
WV S: Did you ever feel that, I mean I don't want to drag you into it too much. But did you ever feel that kind of hopelessness yourself?
JB: Oh yes.
WV S: Tell us about that.
JB: It's almost like 'gosh, what do I have to do?' You could you could hustle all you want to, you can be professional. You can get out in your community. But nobody can help you if there's nothing there. And I mean I think that is a major problem with southern West Virginia. Is there's nothing there to excite people. Like you give a man a job that he can make 20 dollars an hour. That man could change his life around. That man can get positive, about 'man, look at this good paycheck I got this week.' He can go. He can live comfortably. He can pay his bills. He has a little extra spending money his pocket. He can save, he can budget. He can actually he can actually say 'man I'm starting to get somewhere.' And if it keeps positive and keeps you know going to work and being a blue collar worker he can he can totally change his life around, his family's life.
And that is the thing. That opportunity in southern West Virginia is not there. I spoke with several other people. I feel like the American Dream is gone in southern West Virginia that we're left you know we're left with no options. You know it's we're probably the number one, southern West Virginia, I would say is very high in obesity. It's top of your list on drug use. Is the top of your list on welfare. And I mean these are all proven facts. And that's where we're at. I mean you look at all this stuff. That's where we're at.
WV S: What did it feel like when you went in the door in the Coalfield Development? Did you start to see a change in yourself and in that that attitude?
JB: Yeah, over time. Yeah just the constant the constant, life skill studies, the work. And then to know that, hey the whole time I'm doing this, the whole time I'm going to work, I'm getting a paycheck, I'm getting an education at the same time. And I'm not having to pay a dime for it. It kept me positive. They helped me stay positive to get to where I am today, which is 12 weeks from graduating.
WV S: Twelve weeks from graduating high, college, Southern Community College. So have you talked to any of your, let's say high school peers about this? Or people that you've known?
JB: They tell me that they tell me that they're all proud of me.
WV S: Have you, have you talked to any of them who have decided to try it?
JB: Any of my friends that could go to Coalfield? No, but I could. I mean I think we need to Coalfield can become larger, on a larger scale and for southern West Virginia I mean this kind of opportunity, I believe it can't miss.
WV S: Yeah, yeah. That's interesting. Do you know, I mean any cautionary tales, any of your friends who have really gone down a bad path. That you look at them and say 'the only difference between them and me is that maybe my attitude was a little different and I had this opportunity?'
WV S: Tell me about it.
JB: The only thing that separates...
WV S: You don't have to use names.
JB: I'm not going to use names. I mean the only thing that separates people is choices, is the choices you make. Your positive mindset. I can I can make a choice to you know get on drugs or, and it's easy. People don't really realize how easy it is to fall in that road when you're going through depression and when you feel like there's nothing I can do. It makes that road it makes that bad road a hell of a lot easier to jump on.
But it is, like you say, I mean when you when I say keeping a positive attitude and gritting it out and toughing it out and really going for something I MEAN it. Because you have to in southern West Virginia if you if you want to make something out of yourself. I mean it's you can jump, it's so easy to get on that bad side of the road.
Dan Heyman has been covering West Virginia politics and policy for more than two decades. He likes dogs but has trouble keeping kudzu from swallowing everything he owns. For more of Dan's WV Strong content, click here.