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Need a Job? Coal Workers Wanted

Last year, coal mining company Massey Energy, based in Richmond, Va., reportedly sent an airplane with a banner advertisement fluttering behind it as it made passes over Myrtle Beach, S.C. But instead of advertising energy or even a cold drink, the banner was a pitch for coal mining jobs available in West Virginia.

Jordan Taylor, a senior in the Department of Mining & Minerals Engineering at Virginia Tech, helps set timber posts as part of a summer job at Peabody’s Twentymile Mine in Colorado. Mining companies actively recruit students from mining engineering programs for summer employment. Photo courtesy of Angelo Biviano.

As the demand for coal increases, the demand for coal workers is also rising, at a time when a notable dearth of mining engineering geologists and other workers is coming down the pipe. From academic programs that have been slowly disappearing, to a wave of expected retirements, observers of the industry say that a change is necessary.

Luke Popovich, spokesperson for the National Mining Association, says that the coal industry will need to hire about 50,000 miners, engineers and other coal mining specialists over the next decade, “both to replace retirees and to increase production to meet what is expected to be successive years of record-breaking demand.” Already bringing in approximately $30 billion a year, the coal industry has experienced growth the past two years or so, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In 2004, the United States produced more than 1 billion tons of coal — about one-fifth the world’s total production (see Comment, this issue). In western Kentucky alone, the amount of coal mined increased by 20 percent last year, says Richard Sweigard, chair of the mining engineering program at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Although the demand for coal mining employees is not peaking yet, Sweigard says, it is definitely “ramping up” in all fields, from mining reclamation to mine management. Many of the graduating engineering students from his program are being snapped up sometimes before they have finished undergraduate work, says Sweigard, who has been involved in recruiting and placement of students since he joined Kentucky’s faculty in 1988.

Recently, hiring companies have begun recruiting earlier than usual, wooing undergraduates in their second and third years, in hopes of persuading them to come to work after they have completed their studies, Sweigard says. And now, in an industry that generally does not recruit students getting master’s degrees or higher, even graduate students have been getting the pitch.

In the past, engineering or other mining science bachelor’s degrees have been sufficient for entry-level positions, in either traditional mining engineering and design (for example, solving technical problems) or production management and operations (for example, leading a crew underground in their daily work). Mining geologists tend to work on the exploration, design and analysis of mining operations, whereas mining engineers determine whether opening a mine is economically feasible and then design a mine’s ultimate structure, as well as its basic everyday management, Sweigard says.

Including Kentucky, only about a dozen accredited mining programs operate currently in the United States. Spread across the country from Nevada and Colorado to the East Coast, Sweigard says that these schools tend to reflect their regions’ mining focus, which means that only a few programs are producing graduates trained especially for coal: among them, Virginia Tech, West Virginia University and Pennsylvania State University. The University of Kentucky, which emphasizes coal, sends three-quarters of its undergraduates into the coal industry, Sweigard says.

More than a decade ago, “when mining was in decline and investment was drying up because of low commodity prices, mining schools also dried up and mining programs found themselves consolidated or eliminated,” Popovich says. “Now we find ourselves in boom times, and we don’t have the mine training we would like to have, and it’s not something you can simply start up with the push of a button.”

Two years ago, the Minerals Education Sustainability Committee of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (known as SME) first reported that state universities will need federal subsidies of $20 million a year to maintain their current programs, including costs for recruiting students, hiring faculty and other activities. About a year ago, Leigh Freeman of Downing Teal, a company that tracks mining hiring practices, estimated that to fill industry positions, programs need to produce more than three times their current rate of graduates, as well as find ways to replace retiring faculty members.

The current shortage has been in the works for several years, according to these organizations and others watching the trends. A report produced by Downing Teal shows that approximately 700 to 800 engineers graduated in each of the 1980 and 1981 classes. A drop-off in graduates began soon after, so that the United States has produced only 100 to 200 engineers a year for nearly two decades. Now, the earlier influx of workers is set to retire in the next five to 10 years, and programs will have to build up to meet both the replacement of those workers and the increased hire for new positions to meet the new coal demand.

Popovich says that the rising demand for personnel could continue for 15 years. Despite gains in productivity from new technologies, which allow fewer workers to mine more tons of coal, more employees will be required who are familiar with the technology or have higher levels of training, he says.

Another key to the uptick in demand comes from calls by the current administration for oil independence and alternative energy sources, similar to those made by President Carter in the 1970s. The energy crisis then led to a “major influx,” Sweigard says, which ramped up the numbers of coal and mining engineers to its peak in the early 1980s.

This time around, clean coal for electricity generation has been the cry, prompted by changing technology. Once an undesirable resource because of its heavy sulfur content, coal from the Illinois Basin, for example, can be “cleansed” by new technologies that burn off, capture or “scrub” the sulfur emissions. That shift partly explains the upswing in production in Kentucky, where the deposit dips into the state on the western side. Coal-burning plants remain the established infrastructure for electricity generation, outstripping oil and natural gas at the moment, which gives coal a further advantage over other energy sources, particularly as oil and gas prices rise, according to Sweigard.

Although the increasing product demand may be leaving coal companies “scrambling” to produce more coal and hire more workers, Sweigard says, “it’s almost become sort of a perfect storm for mining engineers — almost like the late 1970s all over again.”

Naomi Lubick

Links:
Comment, Geotimes, April 2006


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