Working in coal mines can bring to mind dirty and dangerous labor. But for more than century, it often was lucrative.
Joe Caudill, who worked as a roof-bolter in an underground coal mine in Knott County in eastern Kentucky, brought home $105,000 last year, after factoring in overtime pay. But Caudill and thousands of others like him have likely seen the last of such paychecks.
Caudill was told in April that he and others working at the Arch Mine in Raven were being laid off because of less need for coal to produce electricity, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports (via The Sacramento Bee). The 26-year-old plans to look for another mining job, though it likely means either a lengthy commute or moving. Moreover, he'll have lots of competition from other unemployed miners.
"It'll be tough," Caudill said.
The drop in demand for coal is being driven by a number of factors, not the least of which is the increased use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to free deposits of natural gas and oil locked in layers of rock hundreds of feet underground. Increased use of fracking has resulted in cheaper oil and much lower costs for natural gas.
And it has also led to a surge in employment in places such as North Dakota. There, the controversial extraction method has created thousands of jobs and pushed the state's unemployment rate down to 2.9 percent.
But in eastern Kentucky times are hard. About 2,000 mining jobs have been eliminated so far this year, as demand for coal dwindles. Not only are more power plants turning to natural gas for electricity production, but the recent mild winter left many coal-fired power plants with stockpiles of unused fuel and the nation's slow economic recovery also has reduced the nation's overall need for coal.
In eastern Kentucky, however, locals are more apt to blame increased federal regulations for the loss of jobs and the decline in the coal industry, the Leader reports, even though mining in that part of the state has seen its fortunes rise and fall for decades.
Mining in the region dates back to 1820, but reached its heyday in the 1920s when the U.S. economy soared and demand for energy grew along with it.
Though analysts don't dismiss the effect that current and pending federal regulations are having on coal mining, they say that the costs of mining coal in Wyoming are a fraction of those in the Central Appalachian coalfield, comprised primarily of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, which has been mined extensively.
In the meantime, unemployed coal miners in eastern Kentucky are experiencing what many Americans in other sectors of the economy have in recent years -- the need to replace a well-paying job in an economy that has few other prospects.
Less need for coal has left veteran miners, such as Gary Hall of Pike County, out of a job and wondering what they'll do next.
Hall, whose job at a coal-washing plant is expected to last just a few more weeks, told the Leader that he expects he'll have to tap his retirement savings if he doesn't find another mining job.
"I don't know what all these coal miners are going to do," said Hall, 51. "Some are going to lose their homes."
While Hall hopes to land another job in mining, others are looking to other industries for future sources of employment, such as automobile manufacturing. Toyota Motor Corp. operates a plant in Georgetown in the north-central part of the state.
And while miners have been able to ride out past cycles of unemployment caused by reduced demand, experts warn that this time eastern Kentucky may be witnessing the last days of its coal-mining industry.
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