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The Argument

Mining Talent in the Complex World of Coal Country

An HR veteran in Pennsylvania's coal region offers his thoughts on President Trump’s declaration to restore jobs to the ailing coal industry.
jobs in coal country for miners

President Trump’s declaration of jobs returning to the coal industry could be misleading.

“Bring Back Coal Jobs” is a phrase seen regularly here in Western Pennsylvania and nearby West Virginia. You can find the phrase on bumper stickers on pickups traveling up and down Interstate 79, as well as on signs in front yards across the region.

That phrase also fueled many concerned citizens to cast their vote last November for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, who was said to “dig coal.” It may have even won Trump the swing state of Pennsylvania.

The latest action weighing on the minds of workers in the region: executive orders rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations on mining coal and a stream protection rule. This pleased many who thought the Obama administration implemented overreaching regulations affecting the energy industry as a whole.

While President Trump has lauded “job creation” as one of the staples of his presidency, I fear his latest promise to bring back those coal jobs might be misleading.

As a native of Western Pennsylvania and a human resources professional (who obviously loves hiring), I do believe that the miners will go back to work. However, a majority of them won’t be headed underground. They’ll be forced to explore other options in the energy industry that perhaps offer more job security … for now.

I work in Greene County, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar rural community that sits at the intersection of the energy industry debate. It’s ground zero for the coal vs. natural gas dilemma.

If you travel 30 minutes south you enter West Virginia, historically one of the top-producing states in the coal industry. However, if you travel 30 minutes north, you find yourself in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, the heart of the natural gas-producing Marcellus Shale. (They even call it “The Energy Capital of the East”).

Workers in this part of the country have a choice: Stay with coal or continue to “explore” natural gas.

Perhaps it doesn’t help many “friends of coal” that one of the most vocal critics in the industry, Robert Murray, the founder and CEO of Murray Energy, the largest private coal firm in the U.S., says, “I would not say it’s a good time in the coal industry. It’s a better time.”

Murray is welcoming the regulatory rollback but still cautions President Trump in regards to the job revival he has promised. Murray has said Trump should “temper his expectations” in this regard.

The numbers support Murray’s claim. Nearly 11,000 coal miners have been laid off in West Virginia alone since 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, coal mining employed 53,000 in 2016, plunging from 98,505 in 2015, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and down from 127,745 in 2008. Go back 40 years, and the numbers were in the 250,000 range.

While environmental regulations may disappear and the political climate may shift, Murray echoes what many believe to be a forward-facing paradigm shift that won’t revert back to the glory days of King Coal.

As a prime example of the shift in the energy market, let’s take a closer look at one of the companies headquartered in the region: Consol Energy, Inc., which employs just over 8,500 people. The company was formally established when Abraham Lincoln was president, and it quickly became the largest bituminous coal company in the eastern United States. It continued mining operations and was one of the largest coal companies in the marketplace into the late 20th century.

In fact, my grandfather and uncle worked for Consol for almost their entire careers. In 1960s and 1970s America, you entered into a “social contract” with an employer and they took care of you and your family in exchange for your hard work and loyalty.

But, as my grandfather and uncle retired after 30 to 40 years spent with the industry giant, the company quickly took new shape.

Fast forward to 2007, and you find Consol Energy launching CNX Gas to focus on natural gas exploration in the Marcellus Shale region. In 2010, Consol acquired Dominion Resource Inc.’s natural gas production and exploration assets for over $3 billion, tripling their position in the Marcellus region to approximately 750,000 acres. In the past few years, they’ve entered into agreements with Noble Energy and Hess Corp., once again, expanding their footprint in the natural gas industry.

In the past few weeks, Consol has confirmed it is exploring options to shed its 150-year-old coal mining business.

This story is a familiar one here in Western Pennsylvania. It is part of the dynamic shift affecting workers in the region. So when you hear that President Trump will bring jobs back, he’s not lying. He’s just not telling you the entire story.

Jonathan Flickinger has served as a director of human resources for companies in the mining and energy industry. He is also a 2016 Workforce Game Changer. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.