Awaiting Trump’s coal comeback, miners reject retraining

Jerry Lee, sets out merchandise for sale on a table displaying a Trump flag in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 11, 2017.  REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
Lee, puts out merchandise for sale on a table covered with a
Trump in Waynesburg


  • Coal miners in Pennsylvania are holding out hope for
    President Trump to revive the coal industry. Many
    are reluctant to take up training in other
  • In two counties dominated by coal, only 120 people have
    signed up for jobs retraining, far short of the target of
  • While miners put their faith in Trump to bring back
    their coal jobs, others say it is time to move forward and
    venture into cleaner, healthier jobs.

WAYNESBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – When Mike Sylvester entered a career
training center earlier this year in southwestern Pennsylvania,
he found more than one hundred federally funded courses covering
everything from computer programming to nursing.

He settled instead on something familiar: a coal mining course.

“I think there is a coal comeback,” said the 33-year-old son of a

Despite broad consensus about coal’s bleak future, a years-long
effort to diversify the economy of this hard-hit region away from
mining is stumbling, with Obama-era jobs retraining clbades
undersubscribed and future programs at risk under President
Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget.

Trump has promised to revive coal by rolling back environmental
regulations and moved to repeal Obama-era curbs on carbon
emissions from power plants.

“I have a lot of faith in President Trump,” Sylvester said.

But hundreds of coal-fired plants have closed in recent years,
and cheap natural gas continues to erode domestic demand. The
Appalachian region has lost about 33,500 mining jobs since 2011,
according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Although there have been small gains in coal output and hiring
this year, driven by foreign demand, production levels remain
near lows hit in 1978.

A White House official did not respond to requests for comment on
coal policy and retraining for coal workers.

What many experts call false hopes for a coal resurgence have
mired economic development efforts here in a catch-22: Coal
miners are resisting retraining without ready jobs from new
industries, but new companies are unlikely to move here without a
trained workforce. The stalled diversification push leaves some
of the nation’s poorest areas with no clear path to prosperity.

Federal retraining programs have fared better, with some
approaching full participation, in the parts of Appalachia where
mining has been crushed in a way that leaves little hope for a
comeback, according to county officials and recruiters. They
include West Virginia and Kentucky, where coal resources have
been depleted.

But in southern Pennsylvania, where the industry still has ample
reserves and is showing flickers of life, federal jobs retraining
programs see sign-up rates below 20 percent, the officials and
recruiters said. In southern Virginia’s coal country,
participation rates run about 50 percent, they said.

“Part of our problem is we still have coal,” said Robbie Matesic,
executive director of Greene County’s economic development

Out-of-work miners cite many reasons beyond faith in Trump policy
for their reluctance to train for new industries, according to
Reuters interviews with more than a dozen former and prospective
coal workers, career counselors and local economic development
officials. They say mining pays well; other industries are
unfamiliar; and there’s no income during training and no
guarantee of a job afterward.

In Pennsylvania, Corsa Coal opened a mine in Somerset in June
which will create about 70 jobs – one of the first mines to open
here in years. And Consol Energy recently expanded its Bailey
mine complex in Greene County.

But Consol also announced in January that it plans to sell its
coal holdings to focus on natural gas. And it has commissioned a
recruitment agency, GMS Mines and Repair, to find contract
laborers for its coal expansion who will be paid about $13 an
hour – half the hourly wage of a starting unionized coal worker.
The program Sylvester signed up for was set up by GMS.

The new hiring in Pennsylvania is related mainly to an uptick in
foreign demand for metallurgical coal, used in producing steel,
rather than domestic demand for thermal coal from power plants,
the industry’s main business. Some market badysts describe the
foreign demand as a temporary blip driven by production problems
in the coal hub of Australia.

Officials for U.S. coal companies operating in the region,
including Consol and Corsa, declined requests for comment.

“The coal industry has stabilized, but it’s not going to come
back,” said Blair Zimmerman, a 40-year veteran of the mines who
is now the commissioner for Greene County, one of Pennsylvania’s
oldest coal regions. “We need to look at the future.” 

Empty seats

west virginia coal
Machinery operates on a
coal mine in Kentucky.


The Pennsylvania Department of Labor has received about $2
million since 2015 from the federal POWER program, an initiative
of former President Barack Obama to help retrain workers in
coal-dependent areas. But the state is having trouble putting
even that modest amount of money to good use.

In Greene and Washington counties, 120 people have signed up
for jobs retraining outside the mines, far short of the target of
700, said Ami Gatts, director of the Washington-Greene County Job
Training Agency. In Westmoreland and Fayette counties,
participation in federal job retraining programs has been about
15 percent of capacity, officials said.

“I can’t even get them to show up for free food I set up in the
office,” said Dave Serock, an ex-miner who recruits in Fayette
County for Southwest Training Services.

Programs administered by the Appalachian Regional Commission, a
federal and state partnership to strengthen the region’s economy,
have had similar struggles. One $1.4 million ARC project to teach
laid-off miners in Greene County and in West Virginia computer
coding has signed up only 20 people for 95 slots. Not a
single worker has enrolled in another program launched this
summer to prepare ex-miners to work in the natural gas sector,
officials said.

Greene County Commissioner Zimmerman said he’d like to see a
big company like Amazon or Toyota come to southwestern
Pennsylvania to build a distribution or manufacturing plant that
could employ thousands.

But he knows first the region needs a ready workforce.

Amazon spokeswoman Ashley Robinson said the company the company
typically works with local organizations to evaluate whether
locations have an appropriate workforce and has no current plans
for distribution operations in Western Pennsylvania. Toyota
spokesman Edward Lewis said the company considers local workforce
training an “important consideration” when deciding where to
locate facilities. 

Signs of life

donald trump coal helmet
Trump models a hard hat in support of coal miners during a 2016
campaign rally in Charleston, West Virginia.

Mark Lyons/Getty Images

For Sean Moodie and his brother Steve spent the last two years
working in the natural gas industry, but see coal as a good bet
in the current political climate.

“I am optimistic that you can make a good career out of coal for
the next 50 years,” said Sean Moodie.

Coal jobs are preferable to those in natural gas, they said,
because the mines are close to home, while pipeline work requires
travel. Like Sylvester, the Moodie brothers are taking mining
courses offered by Consol’s recruiter, GMS.

Bob Levo, who runs a GMS training program, offered a measure of
realism: The point of the training is to provide low-cost and
potentially short-term labor to a struggling industry, he said.

“That’s a major part of the reason that coal mines have been able
to survive,” he said. “They rely on us to provide labor at lower

Clemmy Allen, 63, a veteran miner and head of the United
Mineworkers of America’s Career Centers, said miners are taking a
big risk in holding out for a coal recovery.

He’s placing his hopes for the region’s future on retraining.
UMWA’s 64-acre campus in Prosperity, Pennsylvania – which once
trained coal miners – will use nearly $3 million in federal and
state grants to retrofit clbadrooms to teach cybersecurity, truck
driving and mechanical engineering.

“Unlike when I worked in the mines,” he said, “if you get laid
off now, you are pretty much laid off.”

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