Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

As Coal Industry Sputters, Some Miners Are Moving On

Despite the industry's prominence on the campaign trail, some ex-miners are giving up on it and learning to code.

Donald Trump promised “to bring the coal industry back 100 percent.” Hillary Clinton was forced to walk back a remark about putting it “out of business.” But a new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland finds laid-off coal miners are beginning to bow to the inevitable and train for jobs in other industries.

The study, released Monday, says a program called Hiring Our Miners Everyday, run by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program since 2013 with a federal grant, has had success in moving coal miners into new jobs, although not in big numbers yet. Says the Cleveland Fed:

It appears to be working. As of March 2016, the HOME program has enrolled more than 3,000 laid-off coal miners and their spouses. Of those enrolled, 1,449 have received support while training for new careers. More than 1,100 have obtained new employment, while 90 participated in internships through the HOME program. Feedback from employers who are hiring workers who have been through the HOME program has been positive, too; EKCEP staff have heard “universally rave reviews about coal industry workers."

Ex-coal miners have a reputation for being safety-conscious and dependable, trainers say. One popular option has been the electrical lineman program at Hazard Community and Technical College, which has trained 124 miners. (Bonus: There's a country song about linemen, Glenn Campbell's "Wichita Lineman"—although that's about telephone linemen.) And technology company Bit Source is recruiting for a "coal-to-code" program that will teach laid-off miners programming skills, the Cleveland Fed study says. 

The study of coal miners is one of five in the central bank's report, which focuses on strategies for fixing the mismatch between the skills employers need and those potential workers have in the Cleveland Fed's district, which includes all of Ohio as well as eastern Kentucky, western Pennsylvania and part of West Virginia.

Coal-mining employment in eastern Kentucky has fallen from 67,000 in 1950 to 7,000 in 2014. But helping coal miners move on isn't easy, the study says, because “the job of a coal miner is much more than just a job: It’s an identity.” Some out-of-work miners cling to the belief that jobs will return.

“You move at the speed of trust,” Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, told the Cleveland Fed researchers. “Trust has to be built.”

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