Coal Industry Lures Engineering Students

After years of economic troubles that saw few people going into mining engineering, the field is experiencing a renaissance on some campuses. Scholarships and good jobs are attracting growing numbers of recruits.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The coal mining industry is reviving after a couple of rough decades. Through the '80s and '90s, no one was hiring mining engineers and hardly anyone was going into the field. Now, the industry is scrambling to get fresh young talent to consider coal.

Reporter Chana Joffe-Walt reports from West Virginia that scholarships and guaranteed high-paying jobs seem to be doing the trick.

CHANA JOFFE: The thing with David Eisenhauer - okay, well, you know how kids who grow up in Hawaii or the Colorado Mountains don't see the beauty - they don't realize they live in a beautiful place? David Eisenhauer didn't see the mines of West Virginia. I mean, he saw them as landscape, but he didn't see them as having anything to offer someone like him.

BLOCK: Actually, mining never, never really even cross my mind until I came to college. I mean, we had friends in the mining industry, it was just, there's an old man that's got a lot of money.

JOFFE: Eisenhauer was not an old man, he was a kid heading off to college to do something. I don't know. Something educated people do. He was thinking civil engineering. So in his first semester at West Virginia University, Eisenhauer slid into a fluorescent lecture hall to watch some videos introducing the various engineering majors.

BLOCK: Everybody comes in and gives their spiel about how good their department is and all this and that. Well, then mining comes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

U: Space-age technology is taking mining to a whole new level. Today, we're learning how to run a mine not from below, but from aboveground. Welcome to the new mining industry. Going up.

JOFFE: Switchboards, joysticks, digital animation, explosions, trucks, grrr.

BLOCK: Mining says look, we face challenges day to day, you'll never be dealing with the same thing two days in a row. We have 100 percent job placements. We have summer internships that pay $15, $20 an hour. And you're going to make a lot of money.

JOFFE: And that's not money 10, 20 years down the road once you earn your way up, not when you get that degree. No, that's now money. It came with a signature on a college major declaration form.

BLOCK: Essentially, yes, you sign the paperwork and they say, okay, well, here's your scholarship, and they - you actually just get a check with your name on it. Pay your school bills, whatever is left over, they just write you a check. You do whatever you want with it.

JOFFE: And there's nothing like money to open your eyes to what's always been all around you, surrounding West Virginia University's calm, rolling, green campus hills.

BLOCK: If you look over here, the steam coming off the smokestacks over here from what appears to be a coal-fired power plant. On the other side of the Mon river, you see the cement silo. I believe that was the load-out from one of the old Consol mines, maybe Arkwright. It's everywhere. You can see it just about anywhere you go.

JOFFE: And the mines everywhere - they all look kind of beautiful to Eisenhauer now - full of opportunity.

Professor Chris Bise makes it his job to open students' eyes to the opportunities here. He runs West Virginia University's mining engineering department, and says now, with the coal boom, there are always three times as many job openings are there are graduates to fill them.

P: And I keep telling our students here or potential students that you have the tremendous opportunity of holding down a job at age 30 that my generation wouldn't even be considered for until they're about 40 years old, because you're going to be replacing the baby boomers as we leave the industry.

JOFFE: That pitch seems to be working. Enrollment in engineering departments across the country has seen a 38 percent increase in the past four years. We're not talking masses of mining scholars here - 800-some total - but they're what the industry needs.

Still, eager recruiters in search of young talents face a challenging hurdle. Mining is a family job - grandfathers pass it on to fathers, to sons. But today's mining dads have seen years of layoffs and instability. Eisenhauer, the junior at WVU, sees this firsthand in his internship at a local coal mine.

BLOCK: I talk to all of them and say, hey, you know, what's your boy doing, what's he going to study? Oh, I don't know. Why doesn't he go into the mines, you know? That seems like a good place where you can make - a hell of an opportunity here. My kid'll never go into the mines. No way, he's never going into the mines. You know, that's what everybody says.

JOFFE: And Eisenhauer's coworkers aren't the only ones wary of a future in mining.

BLOCK: Oh, I just said a lot of prayers. It did worry me.

JOFFE: David Eisenhauer's mom, Emma Eisenhauer.

BLOCK: I can remember asking him how long would it take them to get you out if something happened to you. And I believe it was 30 minutes. And I thought, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOFFE: Eisenhauer says, yeah, yeah, he knows it can be dangerous, but he'll be safe. And anyway, being a mining engineer isn't really all about being underground anymore anyway.

BLOCK: Come this way.

JOFFE: What is it like? Brandon Williamson just graduated from West Virginia University in mining engineering, the same program as Eisenhauer, and his new workplace is a quiet, lonely Consol Coal office building in Western Pennsylvania. The only color in here is map - covering every single wall. Otherwise, it's drab carpets, computers, drafting tables. This place is 15 miles from the closest mine.

Where's your pick and shovel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: My pick and shovel - to be honest, we're down there with, you know, a piece of equipment that cost $100 million that, you know, requires a four-year college degree to run, that mines, you know, 20,000 tons a shift. You know, like Tonka trucks when you were a kid, but on a much more large and expensive scale.

JOFFE: Just what college junior David Eisenhauer wants to hear - big bucks, bigger trucks, and all the while generating a product that provides half of America's electricity. That, Eisenhauer says, is what I call a solid job of the future.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

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