A New Old Job: Today's Young Coalminers

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Matthew Day, miner.

Matthew Day, 23, an apprentice miner, seen on his second day on the job. Frank Langfitt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt, NPR

Turning to the Mines

Taking a break from repairing a diesel engine, Gary McDavid discussed his career choice:

Miner Gary McDavid

Miner Gary McDavid is a trainee at a coal mine in southwestern Virginia. Frank Langfitt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt, NPR
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Miner Joe Kennedy.

Joe Kennedy lost his brother in a mine two years ago when he was crushed by machinery. Frank Langfitt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt, NPR

Few people think of coal mining as a good career move. In Central Appalachia, a generation felt so burned by the boom-and-bust cycles that many gave up on the mines and left to work in Northern cities. But now — in ways few would have predicted — coal is hot again.

Coal prices are higher than they've been in decades. And as a generation of miners prepares to retire, companies are scrambling to find younger people to replace them. The mines they work in are far more sophisticated than the ones their grandfathers might have toiled in.

The search for new workers means that Alpha Natural Resources, a Virginia company, has started something the mining business hasn't seen in many years: an apprentice program.

Picks and shovels have been replaced by computerized equipment that requires specialized training. It takes more than six months to teach novices how to operate and service a variety of cutting, bolting and hauling machines that cost millions of dollars. It is, as one miner describes it, "like playing a big video game with your life on the line."

Even so, the good pay and benefits draw them to work two miles underground, surrounded by dust and diesel fumes. The young miners say it allows them to earn a good living, and provide for their families. But over every coal boom the same question looms: How long will it last?

This story was produced by NPR's Gisele Grayson.

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