A majority of people in the United States support transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, though the desired approach varies wildly. However, beyond a transition to renewables, there has been a steep decline in the use of coal fired power plants since in recent years with the rapid increase in natural gas use due to the popularization of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking. From 2011 to 2019, coal production employment fell 42%, with the steepest decline occurring in the Appalachian region.
The decrease in demand for coal through market forces has led to higher unemployment and underemployment in communities built around extraction sites. Concerns about this challenge often are cited in response to proposed environmental regulations. One path to easing this concern taken by the federal and several state governments, as well as non-government entities, has been job retraining programs for dislocated mine workers. With the projected continued decline of coal mining employment in specific regions, these programs will likely increase in utilization and impact.
While these initiatives continue to become more popular and necessary in an evolving energy economy, it is important to examine the function and goals of existing programs for dislocated coal miners.
United States Department of Labor Grants: Beginning during the Obama Administration, the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Dislocated Worker Grants (POWER Grants) are an effort by the Department of Labor Division of Coal Mine Workers to assist mine workers and their communities during closures and lay-offs. The grants have thus far funded the founding or expansion of retraining programs in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia focused on job loss in the Appalachian region.
The POWER Grant funded program in Kentucky is focused on the Eastern part of the state (where mining is more concentrated) and is managed by the Kentucky Career Center. The Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E) program works with both unemployed miners and their spouses to provide on-the-job training (OJT), classroom training toward licensure, connections to apprenticeship programs and other employment services, as well as assisting with paying workers for OJT. H.O.M.E coordinates with local employers to connect participants in the program with local jobs, raising employment and supporting the local and state economy.
Similar to the H.O.M.E program in Kentucky, the Ohio POWER Grant program is geographically focused on a specific area of high coal-mining density. This program also focuses on several licensed professions in demand including Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), Diesel Mechanics, Heavy Equipment Operators, Welders, Crane Operators, and Waste and Wastewater Operators. The program supports both classroom training and work-based learning to deliver material.
Organized under WorkForce West Virginia and funded by a grant slightly different from Kentucky and Ohio’s retraining, this program provides up to $5,000 per participant to attend retraining programs in mostly licensed trade professions [CDL, Welding, Electrical Engineering, Heating, Ventilation, and Air Condition (HVAC), Diesel Technology, and Chemical Processor.] Like the Ohio program, this grant also covers a $20 per day stipend when attending training. This program also covers some spouses impacted by dislocation due to dependence on that income.
UMWA Training Program: Outside governmental programs, there has been support from the mining labor community to provide retraining services for its members. The United Mine Workers Association, the largest mining union in the United States, has created a program for dislocated coal miners with some eligibility for spouses and dependents. The program provides up $5,000 for associated training costs for a profession in demand and a $20 per day stipend for attended training. Other requirements of the program include being unemployed due to a lay-off rather than voluntarily leaving or being terminated due to an infraction.
As noted above, continued closure of mines is an apparent inevitability and will result in mass unemployment and underemployment in communities in close proximity to one another. This is true for miners and the broader population employed in support services. While the decline is not anticipated to be as steep in the next decade as it was in the last, policies promoting renewable energy sources and market shifts toward natural gas have the potential to continue to heavily impact mining communities. Trends also suggest there is potential for a similar reduction in other extraction industries and it will be necessary to have models of programs to support workers and communities during this industry shift.