Imagine starting work in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky five days after graduating from high school. Now imagine working in the coal mines for 30 years. You know the industry. You have developed a deep level of skill and knowledge about coal mining and running coal mines. You have a good career and worked your way up to managing mines. But then things change.

Mines start closing. You must drive 2 hours morning and night to work your 12-hour shift, 6 days a week. Sometimes your job only lasts 6 months, and the mine suddenly closes. You’ve got kids, a family. This was not what you planned. And now you don’t know what to do.

Meet Kevin Yontz, who at 49 years old went back to school to learn CNC machining and advanced robotics programming. Meet Kevin, who after 30 years of working in the mines has a new career ahead of him working at Roush Yates Manufacturing in Mooresville, SC. Meet Kevin who thanks to the Haas eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute (eKAMI) has a bright future ahead of him. 

“eKAMI has changed my life. It has changed my family’s life. Thanks to eKAMI, I’m on a whole new path. It’s not easy learning a new career at 49 years old, but I’m ready. The instructors at eKAMI have given me the skills, confidence, and support I need to make this change. 

I’m not going to lie – it’s scary. I’m nervous. But I know I can do it. I’m excited to be working in CNC machining and with advanced robotics. From the coal mines to the technology of tomorrow. Who would have thought this was possible!”

Kevin is just one example of the men and women who have had their lives transformed by eKAMI. Opening its doors in 2017, eKAMI is changing life’s trajectory for many in Appalachia. 

There is no denying the real-world realities of coal mining, and the impacts it is having on the people and communities of Appalachia. These facts from a recent report by West Virginia University, titled An Overview of Coal and the Economy in Appalachia, highlight the need for change and new opportunity:

  • Coal production fell by more than 65% overall in Appalachia between 2005 and 2020. 
  • Coal industry employment fell by around 54% between 2005 and 2020. These losses were concentrated in Central Appalachia.

eKAMI Brings Opportunity to Appalachia

Kathy Walker, a 30-year veteran of the coal mining industry, saw a deep need to diversify the region’s economy, and recognized that the citizens of Appalachia have unique skills and experience. Skills and experience ideally suited to 21st century manufacturing. 

Motivated by a singular mission of “diversifying the region’s economy and identifying sustainable solutions by leveraging our uniquely talented and hard-working Appalachian workforce of today in preparation for the jobs of tomorrow,” Walker partnered with the Gene Hass Foundation to open the 40,000 square foot workforce developmentfacility in Paintsville, Kentucky to train people for new careers in advanced manufacturing, robotics, and automation. 

At eKAMI, students learn to program, set-up and operate state-of-the-art Haas CNC equipment, AutoGuideMobile Industrial Robots (MIR), Universal Robots (UR), and READY Robotics automation designed for use in a range of industries from aerospace to automotive.

“Anyone with the motivation and drive to understand something different can open the doors to a new beginning. For the naturally talented workforce of eastern Kentucky, this simply means acquiring new skills to compliment and update existing ones.  

By combining the work-ethic, multifaceted skillset, and problem-solving mentality of our people, together with cutting-edge technology, we have provided employment opportunities never before imagined. Employers in the advanced manufacturing industry from across the U.S. are recruiting from eKAMI. These uplifting, inspiring positions have changed lives in so many ways,” says Walker, the founder and CEO of eKAMI.

The Where, Who, What, Why, and How of eKAMI

Who you know and where you live matter so much in what and where your life takes you. For generations, the citizens of Appalachia knew one thing – coal. The job opportunity was in the mines. Fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, moms, daughters – nearly everyone had a career associated with the mines. 

The citizens of eastern Kentucky not only know the mines, but they are also multitalented people. 

“The people from our region are naturally skilled. We live in a bit of a remote area – so people must be self-sufficient and innovative and know how to make and fix things themselves. Working in the mines provides an additional opportunity to further hone these skills requiring knowledge in safety, electronics, mechanics, equipment operation, and more.

Over the past several years, the continued precipitous decline in demand for coal has been devastating to the region. We have thousands out of work and people are wondering what in the world they are going to do because mining and the support industries have been the economic engine of this entire area for decades. 

The initial challenge was figuring out how to harness all of this talent and what industry would be a fit for our workforce,” says Walker when talking about where the idea for the nonprofit eKAMI originated. 

North American manufacturing and industry is in the midst of a deep skills gap. The jobs are available, but companies are struggling to find, hire, train, and retain people for highly skilled jobs in advanced manufacturing, robotics, and CNC machining. 

Recent data from a Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute Study reveals that the manufacturing skills gap could leave as many as 2.1 million jobs unfilled by 2030. In fact, this study projects that vacant positions could cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion by 2030.

These findings from the May 2021 study underscore the opportunity for the graduates of eKAMI:

  • While the manufacturing industry recouped 63% of jobs lost during the pandemic, the remaining 570,000 had not been added back by the end of 2020, despite a near record of job openings in the sector.
  • U.S. manufacturers surveyed believe that finding the right talent is now 36% harder than it was in 2018, even as the unemployment rate has nearly doubled the number of available workers.
  • 77% of surveyed manufacturers say they will have ongoing difficulties in attracting and retaining workers in 2021 and beyond. 

And this is echoed by AutoGuide, which says there is a definite gap between what manufacturers need, and the skills people have. People want to work in robotics, automation, and manufacturing – but simply lack the skills to do these advanced technical jobs.

“Finding skilled personnel for manufacturing and installations can be extremely difficult, so we’ve been thrilled to find a resource like eKAMI.

Not only do we get hard-working and highly skilled technicians, but they get jobs they likely didn’t even know were possible for them while working in the coal mines.

Because people have been working in really involved industries like mining, the talent that exists in eastern Kentucky is amazing. They are creative and know how to problem solve.” 

Making a Difference with 21st Century Advanced Manufacturing Education

In 2020 we experienced the largest global manufacturing shutdown since the 1940s. Closures started in China and quickly spread throughout the world, with manufacturing and supply chain operations coming to a complete stop in April 2020.

Coupled with the already challenging times for people living in eastern Kentucky, 2020 has left a permanent mark on the lives of many. But amidst this, there was eKAMI. Rather than shutting its doors, the school did what so many people were saying companies and manufacturers had to do – it pivoted.

“Our staff saw an immediate opportunity for us to help others. We quickly shifted from CNC machining parts to 3D printing face shields for local first responders, hospitals, and nursing homes. We flipped the switch and addressed the issue at hand. The eKAMI team worked days, nights, and weekends producing PPE for the community.

Overall, eKAMI is actually putting into action what others talk about doing,” says Walker when talking about the importance of having a vision and understanding opportunity. 

The recent report by West Virginia University, titled An Overview of Coal and the Economy in Appalachia, highlights the deeper need for change in Appalachia:  

  • Total private-sector employment in Appalachia coal-mining counties has been generally flat over the past decade. The total private-sector employment in the mining counties in Central Appalachia has fallen substantially in recent years.
  • The decline in coal, coupled with heavy reliance on coal in some counties, has led to broader negative spillover effects on regional economies. Total private-sector employment dropped substantially in 2020 in not only coal mining counties but also everywhere in the nation. 

And this is why for Walker, eKAMI’s mission doesn’t stop with giving people 21st century advanced manufacturing skills – this is only the beginning. 

“We’re changing people’s lives. We’re providing an already highly skilled workforce with new skills that are changing the trajectory of their lives and, hopefully that of Appalachia forever. 

The overarching goal of eKAMI is to attract industry here to replace the thousands of coal jobs that are permanently gone. Our people have transitioned seamlessly into the world of Industry 4.0. We have the loyal, exceptional workforce – we just need the jobs. 

It’s time to diversify the economy of eastern Kentucky by attracting industry to the area. We’re truly sitting on a goldmine of a talented, exceptionally skilled, innovative, and motivated workforce,” stresses Walker.

Discover the eKAMI Robotics Center

The catch-22 of U.S. manufacturing is not having enough people to fill jobs nor the people to program and operate the robots and automation that can help fill the labor shortage. 

The new eKAMI Robotics Center opened in June 2021 in response to the need for robotics programmers and engineers. By training already highly skilled people on how to program, operate, and work with robots and automation, eKAMI is making it easier for manufacturers to capitalize on automation and manufacturing 4.0.

The new robotics center is supported by a range of companies including:

Walker says the robotics addition to the eKAMI curriculum is the natural step forward in giving people the skills needed to help fill the labor shortage and attract businesses to eastern Kentucky. “Our students are already in high demand – with every graduate receiving impressive job offers. With the new robotics center and the additional cutting-edge skills training, eKAMI graduates are definitely the catch for employers. 

Companies are realizing that successful deployment of automation requires forward-thinking, boots-on-the-ground technicians who have been trained on the latest technology and possess skills suited for today’s manufacturing and logistics environment. We are learning by doing.”

AutoGuide reiterates this sentiment, saying with the skills taught at eKAMI, people are being retrained to do the exact jobs we’ve been struggling to fill. Thanks to eKAMI, we’ve been able to fill a number of jobs with highly experienced and confident people. 

These eKAMI graduates are working as robotics technicians, deploying and maintaining our modular mobile robots at customer sites. It’s a win-win – we’re able to hire skilled personnel for manufacturing and installations, and people are getting high-paying, interesting, 21st century jobs that will last.

Agility, pivoting, resilience, looking forward, and learning from the past are constant themes for manufacturing and industry – particularly since 2020. The idea that people need to always be learning and the value in staying up to date with technology, to be ready for what comes next is not lost on coal miner turned CNC machining and robotics specialist, Kevin Yontz. 

“My youngest son was working in the mines and now because he went to eKAMI, he can get out of the mines. Now, he’ll have a good, solid career. I feel better knowing that he won’t be wasting his time chasing jobs in the mines. 

It’s exciting that we’ll both be working at Roush Yates Manufacturing. To think we’ll be working on everything from engines for NASCAR to parts for SpaceX and rockets – this is huge. I’m turning 50 and I’m so humbled by the opportunity to restart my career. This is all thanks to Kathy Walker and the instructors at eKAMI.”

This is the first of a two-part series on eKAMI, the skills gap, reshoring, and automation. Our September blog looks at how eKAMI is helping companies fill the skills gap, solve the labor shortage, and alleviate supply chain challenges.