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New Avenues for Coal Miners, or Lack Thereof

Due to a mix of economic and social pressures, the United States continues to decrease its production of coal, with 2019 seeing the lowest coal production since 1978. One consequence of declining coal production is a decrease in jobs for coal miners, falling from over 160,000 jobs in 1985 to a little over 50,000 in 2019, even with the promises of the Trump administration to protect the industry. Diminishing demand for coal has left many without jobs, and at an average age of 50, these workers are unsure what’s next for their careers.

Grant funding was made available during the Obama administration to help those greatly affected by the loss of the coal industry, but such relief measures have room for expansion. Many politicians, including President-elect Joe Biden, have called for the transition of coal workers to new jobs. Additionally, Colorado Governor Jared Polis has enacted reforms by creating committees to aid in the transition of coal workers to new jobs as the state moves towards 100% renewable energy. This includes supplying workers with a supplemental income to cover the deficit they may incur in the transition from their old job to their new one.

Advocacy groups, such as the Just Transition Fund, aim to transform communities built around the coal industry. The Just Transition Fund specifically works to clean up the land that was once used for coal mining and use it for renewable energy production, for example by adding solar panels on top of newly cleared land.

A study conducted by Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technical University found potential for former coal workers to join the growing solar industry. Through government sponsored retraining, coal miners could enter the solar industry with the required skills they need. However, retraining specifically for solar has drawbacks. For one, the programs usually target younger workers, as they have a higher rate of retraining success. This can leave older workers out of luck. A large number of coal workers remain unqualified and unemployed. Solar job opportunities are also typically located on the West Coast, which is far from the homes of many current and former miners, so they would have to uproot their lives to receive the training.

With the dream of job retraining fading, some have turned the decline of the coal industry into a new opportunity, like Rusty Justice, the owner of the Kentucky-based coding company Bit Source. Rather than relying on government programs for assistance, Justice took matters into his own hands to help out-of-luck miners. He formerly relied on the coal industry to support himself, but as the industry began to collapse, he switched to coding. Justice’s current goal is to train former coal workers to code, with the majority of his team makeup being laid-off coal workers. Bit Source marks the start of the movement towards a new Kentucky, as the current economic infrastructure in Kentucky remains unsustainable due to its heavy reliance on coal. 

Other coding companies that aim to retrain miners have also popped up since the formation of Rusty Justice’s business. One example was Mined Mines, which focused on miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The program format was simple: go through coding training for 16-32 weeks, come out proficient in a coding language, and have a job secured at Mined Mines. However, this golden opportunity turned out to be fraudulent. Participants received poor or otherwise insufficient training, and were often fired without notice, frequently with missing pay. Instead of being a pipeline to a new career, the program left former miners bereft and jobless once again. 

The era of coal has come to end. The demand for coal miners continues to decline along with coal production. There have been many promises made throughout various governmental administrations, but former miners are still struggling to keep afloat. The promise of retraining has consistently fallen short as budgetary concerns limit the widespread ability to train all former coal miners. Assistance programs offer some benefit, but often leave the workers in worse condition than before the transition. Investing in the restructuring of academic institutions and public services to better suit these searching workers, combined with federal financial assistance, would help to advance and repair the lives of ex-coal miners.

 

Sources:

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Peterson, E. (2016, May 06). From Coal To Code: A New Path For Laid-Off Miners In Kentucky. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/05/06/477033781/from-coal-to-code-a-new-path-for-laid-off-miners-in-kentucky

Reilly, M. (2016, August 11). Can We Really Retrain Coal Workers for Jobs in Solar? Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/2016/08/11/158370/can-we-really-retrain-coal-workers-for-jobs-in-solar/

Sainato, M. (2019, August 12). ‘Coal is over’: The miners rooting for the Green New Deal. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/12/west-virginia-appalachia-miners-green-new-deal

Skibell, A. (2020, June 24). ENERGY TRANSITIONS: Thousands of coal workers lost jobs. Where will they go? Retrieved from https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063442773

Smiley, L. (2015, November 18). Can You Teach a Coal Miner to Code? | Backchannel. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2015/11/can-you-teach-a-coal-miner-to-code/

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