Monday, September 12, 2005

Job Seam Opens Up [BlackDiamond]

West Virginia Gazette
September 10, 2005

Suddenly, the coal industry can't find enough qualified miners

Gary Tincher used to tell prospective miners not to bother with underground training unless they knew someone who could get them a job at the mine.

But times have changed.

"If someone wants to get into the mining industry, now's the time to do it," said Tincher, who owns Tincher Safety, a company that offers mine safety classes in Chelyan.

The skyrocketing price of coal, coupled with the high number of miners nearing retirement has created an increased need for new workers, coal industry officials say. Consider these facts: The cost of a ton of coal has more than doubled during the past three years, and the average age of a coal miner is around 52.

"Across the board, the demand is so high for jobs from general laborer to electricians," said Phil Smith, director of communications for the United Mine Workers of America.

The industry will replace 5,000 to 7,000 retiring miners in the next 10 years, estimates Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. Plus, the immediate demand will create 1,800 to 3,000 more mining jobs.

Massey Energy Co.'s "greatest impediment to growth and improved productivity continues to be the challenge of finding and retaining experienced labor, especially for our underground operations," wrote Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship in a July statement announcing the company's second-quarter financial results.

The company increased its labor force by 225 people during the first half of the year, but still found that labor shortages "hindered productivity and limited Massey's shipping volumes."

That work-force demand is forcing the coal industry to come up with ways to attract more people to the field. Both the UMW and West Virginia Coal Association are creating training programs to certify people to become miners. Enrollment in Tincher's training classes has doubled this August, compared with the same month last year.

Federal money will pay for the $2 million UMW training program, which includes classes on heavy equipment operation and surface and underground mining, said Clemmy Allen, director of the UMW Career Center Inc. He figures about 440 people will be able to receive free training through this yearlong grant. The training will be held in Greene County, Pa., just north of Morgantown.

Meanwhile, the West Virginia Coal Association will start The Academy for Mine Training and Energy Technologies in Morgantown next week. Another class will start in Southern West Virginia in October. The association, West Virginia University Mining Extension Service and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in Logan are working together to offer the classes.

Students will learn about safety and the technical aspects of underground and surface mining during the four- to six-week program, Hamilton said.

The training is necessary because the industry has lost a generation of workers after hiring slowed down in the 1980s because of low coal prices, Smith said. Plus, increased mechanization allowed companies to produce more coal with fewer people.

"Now, the price of coal is very high and demand is very high. They want to produce as much as they can, but at the same time, they're losing workers because they're retiring," Smith said. "A lot of miners left the state because there were no jobs. Or, if they stayed, they're doing something else. So, there's a big hole there."

Training programs used to be in place 30 years ago when the industry was booming, but as the market soured, so did the recruiting and training infrastructure, Hamilton said.

The industry has also changed a great deal in the past decade. Fifteen years ago, every machine required an operator to run it, and the person was close to the coal seam, he said. Now, operations are more computerized and done remotely. The job requires more of a technical approach.

CONSOL Energy Inc. isn't recruiting coal miners; it's looking for mechanics, electrical engineers, people to work with hydraulics and computers and people with basic industrial skills, said Thomas Hoffman, the company's vice president of investor and public relations.

The Pittsburgh-based company has several mines in West Virginia. It was the state's second-largest coal producer in 2003, behind Massey, according to the state coal association.

CONSOL is looking for employees to operate, maintain and fix the mining machines, Hoffman said. Those skills are applicable across many industries, which means CONSOL finds itself competing for employees not only with other coal and energy companies, but with people in heavier industries across the nation.

"I think people have choices, and they want to see how well your choices fit with what they want to do with their lives," Hoffman said.

The company has upped its recruiting efforts and visits more job fairs aimed at high school students. In northern West Virginia, the company has hired hundreds of people this year to replace retirees. Two years ago, the company would have hired 10 people in the same area, Hoffman said.

Recruiters stress the industry's stability and show prospective miners that they can make mining a career, if they want. Then, there's the money. Coal miners earn an average of $60,908 a year, which is double the average annual state wage, according to the most recent statistics from the West Virginia Bureau of Employment Programs.

Those factors are many of the reasons a group of students in Tincher's underground mine training program decided to get into the industry. Mining interested some of the 17 students because of the money, or because they had realized college wasn't for them. Some want to use the money they make in the mines to pay for college. Others see it as a way to get a job that's in demand.

Tincher remembers when he got into mining, back in the early 1970s. During the boom times, miners could go from mine to mine and pick their job.

"Now, you can do that, if you're a qualified miner," he said.


Blogger Steve said...

They could find plenty unemployed miners in the Welsh Valleys or South Yorkshire.

 1:51 PM  

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