Another Disappearing Blue Collar Job?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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David Schepp

Staff Writer

David Schepp has spent more than a dozen years covering business news for the electronic and print media, including Dow Jones Newswires, BBC News, Gannett Co., and most recently at AOL's DailyFinance. Nearly 10 years ago, he started writing a weekly People@Work column, looking in depth at issues facing workers in today's workplace. The syndicated column appeared in newspapers and websites nationwide before it made its debut on DailyFinance in 2010. Schepp now continues that tradition at Aol Jobs, covering the jobs beat and providing readers insight and analysis into the nation's challenging employment scene.

Schepp holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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35 Comments

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jguss69

theres is plenty of methods to burn coal cleanly, all you coal haters pay the same electric rates that less anal people do. lets see how much of your paycheck your willing to fork over to utilitys

February 09 2014 at 12:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
wasabimon

thank god---coal has NO reason to be used---time to kill COAL mining

February 09 2014 at 10:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mh2b

The restrictions on coal began back in the 1970's with the Clean Air Act. It had nothing to do with Obama.

August 01 2012 at 12:20 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to mh2b's comment
lifehub

He built that.

August 01 2012 at 3:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gryphon10

Surely you live under a rock. Obama SAID he would destroy the coal industry.

August 01 2012 at 8:41 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
mh2b

I was a roof bolter in the 70's. We made $37.00 a day.

August 01 2012 at 12:18 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
mn4470

Not a surprise considering the health problems burning coal creates. When technology is able to purify the burning process more successfully, we will certainly be in a great position. We don't need to burn up ALL our natural resources at once. A blessing in disguise is this.
Besides, the Republicans have already sent most of the middle class jobs out of the country. Then all they talk of is Obama's supposed failure to create jobs from thin air.

July 31 2012 at 9:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
flbob

Great! now I'll have to sell my charcoal grille.

July 31 2012 at 9:10 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Al K.

Okay folks.....the number one reason for coal mine shutting down is plain and simple:

ULTRA CHEAP NATURAL GAS......that's right it has little if anything to do with Obama, Bush, or anyone else. It does have to do with modern technology which allows previously unreachable deposits of natural gas to be pursued and brought to the surface for use.

Unfortunately this new technology signals another major blow to an already mortally wounded business...that of coal mining.

But then again the automobile did the same to the horse and buggy....

As advances are made we need to find new ways to employ those thrown out of work.....not just throw them away like disposable rags.

July 31 2012 at 9:09 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Robert

Isn't this what the administration wants?

July 31 2012 at 8:50 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
stinkyheadzzz

Nobody cried when my shipbuilding job was shipped overseas in the late 80s Now I won't feel sad for these guys now.........................good luck

July 31 2012 at 8:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kevin McCauley

Yow!! This guy was making over $100,000.00 a year at the age of 26? That by itself says alot. He's a "roof bolter".
I'm thinking that would be the guy that shors up the cealing of the mine shafts. I honestly have no idea waht that entailes. Does he decide where to do the bolting, or is it every 20 or so feet? My guess is that he makes so much money at such a young age because the work is extreemly dangerious. Not just the fear of fire, or gasses poising a person, but the whole "black lung"desease. Then too, working in the dark pits every day for years on end. It truely sounds like dredful working conditions. Doubt if I could last a week there. Likely it's not a bad idea to let this industry pass. Folks like to lamblast the EPA. It's so much fun to ridiclue what you know nothing about. Yet here in Chicago, I've seen the air turn from filth to passable in my lifetime. There was a time, back in the 60's that to see down town from the outerskirts was a special sight. Mostly that was in the winter when the air could'nt hold as much. Say... remember China in the Olimpics held there? They were afraid to let the atheleats to even go outdors because of all the polution. Guess it would be nice to live in such conditions, given I were making over $100,000.00 a year. Might not live long, but what the heck. Let's just peg this all on President Obama! He's the very reason that I'm making 75k a year and have health insurance. What a scrondrol! I blame him too for trying increace the taxes on the wealthy when the poor only pay 20% of their income. Say... on that point... the whole secureing Medicade and Medicare... frankly, if the poor arnt wise enough to save up some cash for when they are too old and sick to work... we should just letr them die. (burp) Excuse me, I digest. Back to the young fellow that used to make $105,000.00 a year as a coal miner. What should we do with him? He's mighty young. Hard working, no doubt. But without some way of bringing him into a new industry, he will surely become destitute. Our nation is full of such stories. As a people; are we not resopnsble for our brothers and sisters? Is this a nation that would let a person starve? We call ourselves Christians yet we scorn the poor. We hold our head up high as we pass them in the street, and yet how close we are to being the same. Just a breath af the air can bring down a man. Whoops, I digress again. Back to the young man. He's working in a dirty inndustry, selling his very life for 100k a year. Doubt he'll do as well in the years to come; like so many unemployed bankers. He's young enough to learn another trade. I do hope he gives up the coal industry. It's just a dieing indrusty, I hope.

(P.S.) yes my spelling is terrable, please dont bother to tell me that. Call me a fool on any other point, I'm fine with it.

July 31 2012 at 8:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kevin McCauley's comment
dennyinusa

Great post. Great sense of humor.

July 31 2012 at 11:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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