HARLAN, KY. — Dustin Seals remembers the precise moment he decided not to be a coal miner. He was 12 years old and his father, a 28-year mine veteran, took Dustin and his brother underground for the first time.
They were barely 50 feet into the mine, riding a "caterpillar" - a rail-car transport - up a steep incline when the engine's battery failed. The caterpillar careened back down the shaft.
"My father yelled 'jump!' and all three of us dove off into some gravel. We got ourselves cut up pretty good," says the senior at Cawood High School, who wants to go to college and then become a computer animator. "I went to the mines once, and I will never go back to the mines again."
Across coal country, young people like Dustin are opting for college and careers outside of the mines that prior generations entered almost as a matter of course. The shift not only is tearing at the social fabric of small-town Appalachia, but it also comes at a time when an energy crunch is boosting demand for coal. "There's no question the mines are facing a labor shortage ... for both young workers and experienced miners," says Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. In eastern Kentucky alone, probably 1,000 mining jobs are going begging, he says.
The fresh demand represents a reversal of fortune for a fuel that, while it still supplies more than half the nation's electricity, has been losing ground to cleaner natural gas. Now coal, too, is in hot demand, and the Bush administration's energy policy will call for more production.
But to get busy, the mines need miners.
The labor shortage has been building slowly for several years. It became particularly acute five months ago, when spot coal prices spiked to $50 a ton.
Until recently, long-term contracts had been below $23 per ton, down from a high of $30 in 1982. It's unclear where the prices on long-term contracts will settle, but the spot price shows upward pressure - and has fueled demand for workers.
"Before you know it, we had eight or nine employers calling, all looking for experienced miners," says Karen Middleton, director of the Harlan office of Kentucky's Workforce Development Cabinet.
No one sees the worker shortage resulting in brownouts or blackouts, because power-plant inventories are typically measured in months. But the long-term health of the coal industry is viewed as vital to support the increase in electricity production urged by President Bush.
No quick fix
Although government and industry officials recently met to discuss the labor shortage, the problem defies easy solutions. The coal industry has boomed and busted for decades, and with each bust more coal miners have left the region, usually going to auto plants or other factory jobs in Ohio or Michigan, often never to return.
Indeed, locals have seen coal-related jobs in eastern Kentucky drop from 25,000 in 1990 to 14,400 in 1998, according to Department of Energy statistics.
Mining companies are thus hit with a double whammy. Not only are young people less willing to pursue a career in the mines, but there are just plain fewer of them to recruit. Harlan County lost nearly 10 percent of its population in the 1990s, the biggest loss of any county in Kentucky.
Because those who leave are often in their prime working and childbearing years, the decline in the student population is even more dramatic, with some school enrollments cut in half since 1980.
The outside world and its increased opportunity for both college and career beckons Harlan's young people as never before. But in interviews with five high school seniors whose fathers all worked in the mines, even self-fulfillment took a backseat to one overriding factor in their decision not to go into mining: safety.
"Mining has made tremendous strides in terms of safety," says Mr. Caylor. "New laws and regulations and changes in equipment and procedures have all come a long, long way."
However true that may be, the perception is virtually the opposite among the graduating seniors. And whereas their fathers may have endured the dangers with rugged stoicism, this generation has no qualms about voicing their fears.
"Most of all, it's the danger," says Dustin. "My dad had a friend killed not too long ago.... And I'm scared for him every time he goes in."
Brandon Owens, also a senior, remembers, as an 11-year-old, visiting his father in intensive care the day after a severe accident. "The doctor come out and said, 'This could be your last five minutes with your Dad, so say what you have to say.' "
Although his father lived, and regained partial mobility with the help of a cane, he has yet to find work, and his disability claim is still not settled seven years later.
"You couldn't pay me enough to go work in the mines," says Brandon. "Not after what I seen with my dad."
Like the geologic upheaval that formed the mountains ringing this gritty small town, mine operators looking to hire find themselves caught between shifting tectonic forces. In the past, they were able to hire new miners who had 10 weeks of training at a vocational school or elsewhere. But many of those programs have folded, and mining firms are not eager to take on the added expense of training.
Cumberland Elkhorn Coal Co. is a case in point. The 160-miner operation could use as many as 40 more miners immediately, says C.V. Bennett, vice president of sales and a third-generation owner of the family business. But new miners require 45 days of one-on-one supervision, in which they are paid but not productive. Thus, a small operator like Cumberland is faced with paying two miners - one experienced and one not - nine weeks' pay for much less than full productivity.
Bidding wars for miners
In an industry with razor-thin margins, that's hard to justify. Besides, experienced miners are needed more than raw recruits. As a result, mining companies have begun salary bidding wars for the most experienced and productive miners.
With the industry's physical infrastructure having shrunk over two decades and a permitting process that takes two to three years, an influx of miners alone wouldn't necessarily land the industry in boom times.
Indeed, three weeks ago, the University of Kentucky graduated only 10 mining engineers, a number down precipitously from a generation ago - and only one incoming freshman is pursuing the major.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor