$80k a year with a high school diploma: Why it's difficult to replace coal-mining jobs

 

On a Saturday in early February, the wooden bleachers at the old middle school in Paonia, Colo. were filled with men in boots, camouflage hats and Carhartt jackets. Most were miners who had recently been laid-off by one of the North Fork Valley’s three coalmines. Stern-faced women sat beside them, some wearing pins that said, “I dig mining!” One man wore a miner’s helmet covered in stickers from the coal company that had just laid him off. Right above the brim he’d stuck his most brazen sticker, which read “Stop the war on coal, fire Obama.”

The Democratic state senator representing the district had called the meeting and lined up a series of speakers to offer advice and encouragement to the out-of-work miners. During a presentation about re-training programs, a miner named Cliff Brewer spoke up.

“I’m all for the re-training programs and I’ve looked into them already, but the fact of the matter is, it does not support our life. A $10/hour job, that’s not enough to keep us here,” he said, to murmurs of agreement from the crowd. “Is there anything that would train a miner to make the kind of money he’s used to making underground?”

copy_of_photo22.JPG
The coal shoveling competition at Paonia, Colo.'s annual Fourth of July celebration. Courtesy Andrew Cullen, HCN Associate Designer.

With a few exceptions, the answer to that question is no. “The city of Montrose (Colo.) hired patrol officers starting at $50,000 a year,” said John Jones, the director of Delta Montrose Technical College, as he touted the school’s law enforcement training program to the miners. “It’s not the kind of wage that a miner makes, but it’s a good living wage.”

But for miners accustomed to making – and spending – nearly double that amount, it doesn’t feel like a living wage. The transition can be especially hard for those miners who only have high school diplomas. “I don’t have a college degree and I make 80 grand a year, you tell me another job that’s going to pay me $80,000 a year,” Brewer said when I talked to him after the meeting. “There’s none. I’m going to go where the mines are at and unfortunately that’s not here anymore.”

Miners willing to move may find jobs in coal-producing regions that are still booming, like Wyoming’s Powder River Basin or the Illinois Basin in Western Kentucky. But for those who want to stay put and find new jobs in places like Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and, at the moment, Paonia, Colo., it can be hard to accept the severe pay cut.

Brett Dillon is the director of the West Virginia office of the United Mine Workers of America’s Career Centers. A former coal miner himself, he tells recently laid-off miners in the Southeast that they might need to take a job where they’ll just scrape by, but that that’s better than relying on unemployment. “Some of you guys will get back (into coal mining),” he tells them. “But what I encourage you to do is take advantage of the training while you’re drawing unemployment, so that if you do go back and you get laid off again, you have something to fall back on.”

Dillon’s miners can learn welding, get a commercial drivers license or become a diesel mechanic. In Western Colorado, Delta Montrose Technical College has miners studying to be emergency medical technicians and policemen.

West Virginia lost 10,000 coal jobs since January 2012, and neighboring Kentucky’s not much better with 6,000 miners out of work. That’s where Michael Cornett of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment program is trying to spend over $5 million in federal grant money to help miners move into new professions. But as Erica Peterson with WFPL Radio in Louisville, KY reports, that’s more easily said than done:

“The reality is it’s a difficult switch in this culture to get people to consider other alternatives,” Cornett says. … “This is a culture that is used to the coal industry waxing and waning throughout the years,” he says. “They’re not at all unaccustomed to layoffs, but typically those layoffs have been shorter and the phone would ring a lot sooner and they’d go back to work. That’s simply not happening now.”

Back in Western Colorado, miner Brian Waitman has applied to coal mines out of state, but also says he’s waiting to see if Elk Creek will re-open in a year, as the mine’s managers claim. “I can get by for a year, if in fact it comes back,” he said.

And that’s a big “if.” An underground fire that forced the company to abandon its longwall, an $80 million piece of equipment, prompted Elk Creek’s recent lay-offs. But the decision whether to re-open the mine – and re-hire its workforce – will be a macroeconomic one.

3902359708_4a5eff06d3_b.jpg
One of the North Fork Valley's three coal mines. Courtesy Alejandro De La Cruz via Flickr.

In general, Western coalmines like the ones in Colorado’s North Fork Valley haven’t been hit as hard as Appalachian coalmines, largely because there is still a strong market for the area’s high BTU, low-sulfur coal. But the economics of coal are rapidly changing as utilities replace coal with natural gas and decide how to respond to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury regulations, which come into effect in the next two years and require all coal plants to have scrubbers. The Energy Information Administration predicts a loss of 60 gigawatts of coal power by 2020 roughly the amount of energy generated by 26 Navajo Generating Stations, one of the largest coal plants in the West mostly from the retirement of old, dirty plants.

In the North Fork Valley, mine operators are closely watching how much coal large customers are buying and where they’re getting it from. Already one huge customer, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has said it will likely purchase less coal from Colorado going forward. That could mean more lay-offs at a neighboring mine.

Even if the conditions that led to their predicament aren’t identical, laid off Appalachian and western Coloradan coal miners do have one thing in common – the reluctance to call it quits on an industry that not only paid them well, but provided them with a sense of belonging. Compared to oil and natural gas booms, where workers from around the country live in man camps hundreds of miles away from their families, the coal communities I’ve seen in Appalachia, New Mexico and Colorado seem much less transient, and much more entrenched.

“We are a community, we are a family, and everybody’s there to help everybody else,” said the wife of a laid-off Elk Creek coal miner, who cried when she told me her family was planning on leaving the North Fork Valley to find mining work elsewhere.

Brewer put it this way:  "It’s a way of living to us, it’s not just a job."

Emily Guerin is a correspondent at High Country News. She tweets @guerinemily.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR, ENERGY AND LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • PRICE REDUCED $94,300 - LOT SOUTH OF MONTROSE
    5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • CHARMING HOME/FARM NEAR CLIFF, NM
    3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF NEW MEXICO WILDLIFE FEDERATION
    The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE SPECIALIST I
    HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • ARAVAIPA LAND STEWARD
    The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • VP OF DEVELOPMENT
    seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT
    High Country News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • FIVE-ACRE VIEW LOT WITH WELL
    5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.