College graduates heading to careers in ... the coal mines

With many miners approaching retirement, the industry is trying to attract young talent.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Joshua Hoffman's parents, a computer scientist and law-enforcement officer, sent their son to the University of Missouri at Rolla (UMR), a coal mine was probably the last place they imagined higher education taking their son.

Yet, as an explosives engineering major, Mr. Hoffman is now excited to don a hard hat and pursue the black rock. His parents, however, are less than enthused.

"My dad was, like, isn't [coal mining] horrible?" recounts Hoffman. It took some convincing, but he managed to persuade his parents that mining has evolved past pickaxes and black lung and is increasingly a smart career for well-educated individuals.

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For decades, coal mining was a risky career path, less because of the physical dangers and more so because of fleeting job security. While college students previously avoided mining as a course of study, now, thanks to the coal boom and the industry's growing need for college-educated engineers, mining has become a career that more young people are going to college to pursue, rather than to escape.

"Throughout the '80s and the biggest part of the '90s, we steered our youth away from mining because we were in a period of austerity," says Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. Now, many West Virginians are no longer discouraging their children from a career in the mining sector.

Though Adam Patterson's family has mined coal in the mountain state for seven generations, when he started school at West Virginia University (WVU) he was uncertain if he'd continue in their footsteps. "But when I got here and saw the opportunities that were available, it became apparent that it was something I really wanted to do," says Mr. Patterson, now a junior majoring in mining engineering.

The number of mining jobs in West Virginia, the second-largest coal producer in the United States, jumped 38 percent between 2003 and 2006. And because of looming retirements, demand for new workers looks strong for years to come.

After bouncing between civil, industrial, and mechanical engineering, Robin Oldham, a senior at WVU settled on mining engineering. "Money was the big factor," he says. "I knew I was guaranteed a job." Like many other university mining programs, WVU's boasts a 100 percent job placement rating.

Aside from forcing a number of miners into new careers, the staffing slump during the '80s and '90s created a problem just now coming to fruition. Amid the layoffs of the past two decades, few new miners entered the field. Now, Christopher Bise, chairman of WVU's department of mining and engineering, says the average miner is in his early to mid-50s, approaching retirement. In the next decade, he estimates that 50 to 60 percent of the mining workforce will retire, and soon the supply of qualified miners will only meet about one-third the demand for labor.

"Once [students] get into the field, they might end up holding down jobs at age 30 that heretofore they might not have even been considered for until they were 40," says Dr. Bise.

The coal industry is already trying to lure young talent like Patterson and Mr. Oldham. Both have received full scholarships from various mining company foundations. Summer mining internships that pay between $15 to $20 an hour, often with time and a half overtime rates, cover all of their incidental expenses during the school year. Following graduation, starting salaries for mining engineers range from the mid-$40,000s to $60,000.

But it's not just the high salaries that attract Oldham. "I still get excited every time I go underground," he says.

The rising interest among students isn't limited to West Virginia.

At UMR the number of students in the department of mining engineering nearly tripled from 52 in 2001 to 142 in 2007. A survey by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration indicated a 14 percent increase in students enrolled in undergraduate mining programs across the country between 2006 and 2007.

"Mining is not easy work, but it's not as backbreaking as it once was," says Mr. Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Only 10 to 15 percent of miners do the "day in and day out tough work," like shoveling coal that falls off conveyor belts or moving heavy machinery at any given coal-mining site, estimates R. Larry Grayson, chair in mining engineering at Penn State. Although most college students will not have to work as laborers, except for perhaps a brief orientation period, Bryan Lummus, personnel recruitment and development coordinator for Alliance Coal, headquartered in Lexington, Ky., says that despite this, not every student is chomping at the bit to get into the coal business. Oftentimes college students avoid mining because of the stereotype that it's blue collar. "Students still see the coal miner as carrying a pickax and shovel and crawling on their hands and knees in a dirty environment," says Mr. Lummus.

In reality, he says, coal mining has become increasingly technical, and students with advanced-engineering degrees will be in high demand. Additionally, he argues that mines are relatively comfortable places to work. For example, workers can stand up in most mines, which are also sometimes equipped with Internet access.

"I guarantee you that if you ever get a chance to visit a salt mine, [for example], you'd come out of there raving what a great workplace it was," says Bise.

Still, as industries like coal mining are prone to boom and bust cycles, the market does not worry many mining-engineering majors. "Even if they stopped coal mining in the US, there's metal and nonmetal quarries, and all kinds of jobs mining engineers could go for," says Vance Rumbaugh, a senior mining-engineering major at Penn State.

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