Friday, July 22, 2011

Workin' In A Coal Mine

With a generous hat tip to John at Improved Clinch who has a truly awesome week's worth of posts.  But, first, a little coal mining music... 

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?”

“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)
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.

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?”

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?
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. 


  1. The reason is the difference between real jobs and state jobs. Because their work ethic sucks, those kids would rather make 25K sitting on their asses at a desk, filling out a few pieces of paper, and perhaps wielding a bit of "authoritah" over the peon citizens they supposedly work for than to put in a long and hard shift doing manual labor in a mine.

    Now, I'll admit I would rather work as a pilot or as a registered nurse (done both) than to wield a pick and shovel (done that too), but as a young man it was easier to find employment at manual labor and that is what it took to put bread on the table. Later, after quite a bit of training, I was able to work jobs that were less physical, although I still put in long hours and mucho overtime working in both law enforcement and nursing.

    Our schools and our society have been teaching our kids that government jobs mean benefits that you can't get in the private sector, retirement at an earlier age (often at a higher rate), the ability to get by with sloppy work or even pretending to work with little to no risk of being fired, plus the cache of a job title that sounds classier than plumber, electrician, or even engineer.

    Add to that the fact that - recently at least - about the only jobs being created have been government jobs, bureaucratic jobs, and you have a recipe for whole generations who don't understand what honest work entails. I won't even get into the sub-culture that exists of workers - especially in the federal and state governments - who have discovered how easy it is to scam a 100% disability rating and collect a decent paycheck for doing absolutely nothing.

  2. Good Lord.

    Reg T, who would choose to go to work with Dilbert?

  3. I did :-) I worked with a fellow who was exactly what Dilbert would look like if he were flesh and blood, but he was an administrative clerk at the VA instead of an engineer. Really nice guy, not quite as nerdy as Dilbert but kind of ineffectual in a similar social fashion, although he did his job well.

    I could tell you of a dozen highly paid administrative staff, nurse managers, and others at our particular VA that were paid from $70K to $120K and did nothing. Literally. Unless you count attending meetings and writing "position" papers, new employee regulations, and requirements for "improving morale". (One of them use to spend a couple of hours several times a week shopping in town when she was supposed to be in her office.) As well as a Director who made an extra $40K-$50K a year in bonuses for saving money from the budget - by understaffing us, withholding medications and equipment needed by our veteran patients, etc. Last I heard, he was the Director at Albuquerque.

    BTW, that should have been "cachet", not "cache" ;-)

    Speaking of Dilbert, one of my favorite Dilberts was one that might well have been written for some of our VA employees: A co-worker asks Wally, "Should I try to be indispensable so I don't get fired?" and Wally replies, "No, indispensable people end up working too hard because they can't risk showing anyone else how to do what they do."
    The co-worker says, "Being useless seems riskier" to which Wally replies, "Have you seen the tie clip I got for twenty years of service?"

  4. I think the perception of danger as a miner may be at work here, at least as much as the hard work aspect.

    @RegT, @Borepatch:

    Have you seen Terry Gilliam's Brazil? That's what I think of when I think of government bureaucrat positions, and I'm hoping that I can be Harry Tuttle.

  5. When Brazil first came out, it was worth seeing, for the visuals if nothing else. Hardly anyone can fill a movie screen with imagery like Gilliam. Now, with the response to terrorism turning our society into a dystopia reminiscent of Brazil, it seems prophetic. Gilliam was ahead of our time.

    Just make sure you're Tuttle and not Buttle.

  6. I think the perception of danger as a miner may be at work here, at least as much as the hard work aspect.

    I think BS is probably correct about the danger aspect, and the hard work. Additionally, many blue collar workers, such as coal miners, do aspire for their children to not have to work in the mines or other manual labor type jobs, which, unfortunately, are considered in our day and age as lowly.

    With that said, dangers or no, one would think that the opportunity to earn $50K per year as a miner, with a mere H.S. degree, would have definite appeal. I think that if a H.S. graduate took a longer term view in regards to being a coal miner, i.e. work hard for 4 years, bank some of that $50K each year, and then look to other opportunities, whether college or other less manually taxing positions within the coal mining industry, the potential danger risks would be ameliorated.

    Granted, this type of thinking is not taught within the government controlled school system, nor in many American homes.

    I know that if my sons were in need of employment, I'd be pointing them South.

  7. >Just make sure you're Tuttle and not Buttle.

    Ha! Ninja HVAC repairman, at your service!

  8. I meant to add:

    Tuttle it is. I'll go down in a hail of duct tape and baling wire. Better to die with screwdriver in hand, than to be taken into the interrogation rooms. :D

  9. @John Venlet:

    Yeah, I was thinking (but not saying) about social pressure, the whole "everyone's gotta go to college" mania, etc. I'm sure there are a lot of things working against the notion of becoming a miner.

    Graybeard's points about aversion to hard physical labor are certainly valid enough. Do you know anyone who works as hard as this guy? I'm humiliated. :D