From National Review Online a story about coal mining jobs in Appalachia going unclaimed. As rockhounds, the lovely and plate tectonics-rejecting Mrs. Graybeard and I are more familiar with mining than most folks. We've chosen vacations around the US to go into mines: open quarries like the Arkansas quartz mines, Utah's Bingham Canyon copper mine, and underground hard rock mines like Michigan's copper mines, Montana's sapphire mines, and more. We've been in mining museums and seen both the primitive tools of the 1800s, and more modern operations. Mining of any kind is hard and dangerous work, but it often pays well. Kids can make $50K per year as a coal miner, right out of high school, doubling that with training which the company provides, and yet coal mines are having a difficult time hiring and retaining employees even in the current job climate.
I work as an energy trader and recently took a customer down to Appalachia to visit some coal mines. On our visit to one of the mines, there was a large sign prominently displayed: Accepting Applications. Once the meeting and mine tour were finished we were in the mine manager’s office and I asked him, “How come you’re hiring? Did you just lose some workers?”A couple of years ago, a discussion with several friends led me to the shocking conclusion that the work ethic was disappearing from our younger generations. One woman asserted that all you needed to do to become the manager at a restaurant, or any retail job she had seen, was to show up when scheduled, work a reasonably honest day's work for a day's pay, and do that for a few months. Do it for a year and you might just be promoted to full partner. It seems to be the case in the coal mines, too.
“Hell, no!” was the reply. “We are always looking for people.”
Not sure if you have had the chance to visit Appalachia, but there are large pockets of poverty here, especially when the overall unemployment throughout the country is close to 10 percent. Hard to imagine there would be any job openings. So I asked him again, “How come? Don’t you pay enough?”
He explained to me that a high school graduate can start working at the mine and make roughly $40K a year. After 90 days of training (or in the industry lingo, when a worker goes from being a “red hat” to a “black hat”) that pay jumps up to about $50K a year.
Now granted, this isn’t easy work. It’s a 50-hour work week (with overtime of course), which includes night shifts and weekends. But $50K for a high school graduate?
The manager went on to explain to me that, “If you know which end of a wrench to pick up” the company will be glad to train you to be an electrician, equipment operator, etc. in which case your salary will rise to $75–$100K a year.
I asked him, “Then how come you can’t get workers?”
His reply was telling. “All you have to do to get a mine job is come to work every day, work reasonably hard, and pee clean. We just can’t find people who can do this.” (emphasis added)
But the kicker to this story is the conclusion:
Finally I asked the manager, who was in his mid 50s or so, “What about your kids?”I consider myself fortunate to have profited from college, and ended up with a job that pays me well to solve problems. On their part, the company asks me what the mining company asks: come to work every day, work reasonably hard, pee clean ... and solve those problems.
He replied: “Oh, they both went to college.”
“What are they doing now?”
“Working for the state government.”
“How much do they get paid?”
“About $25 grand a year.”
I won’t waste your time describing how many things about this 5 minute conversation made me depressed about the current state of the U.S.A. I’ll focus on one thing.
How can someone rationally decide that it is a better choice to go to college, waste time and money for four years, only to get a job that pays half or less of another job you could get? Are people so deathly afraid of hard work?