RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This spring, some high school graduates in the West may find themselves with good job prospects. The recent spike in metal prices, combined with a shortage of miners, means mining companies are hiring in Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and Nevada. So, some teens are opting not to go to college and instead heading underground.
Jessica Robinson of Northwest News Network reports these high-paying jobs also come at a cost.
JESSICA ROBINSON, BYLINE: Don Kotschevar teaches high school in the small town of Mullan in north Idaho's remote Silver Valley. He's the assistant principal, basketball coach and shop teacher.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINEY)
ROBINSON: Lately, Kotschevar has been questioning his own career path. He watches his students parlay the skills he teaches them in this industrial mechanics class into lucrative mining jobs.
DON KOTSCHEVAR: Some of them, in the first six to eight months, their salaries absolutely crush mine.
ROBINSON: Entry-level mine jobs can pay $50,000 a year. Lately, Kotschevar's been thinking he could get a similar offer from local mine bosses.
KOTSCHEVAR: You know, I've got nine more years so I can get my retirement here. And then when I retire I'll probably go to see if they'll hire me. Hopefully, I won't be too old.
ROBINSON: So, your retirement plan is to go work at a mine.
KOTSCHEVAR: Well, yeah, I've been in teaching.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KOTSCHEVAR: I need to have a retirement plan.
ROBINSON: The price of silver ore coming out of north Idaho suddenly makes that possible. After a long bust, this boom has mining companies wooing workers. Kotschevar's son, Hunter, is one of those being courted by local mines. Hunter's in this shop class too. Hey, it's a small town.
HUNTER KOTSCHEVAR: Crew bosses, they said that they can get me jobs for like the summer when I turn 18, but I don't want to risk it.
ROBINSON: You don't want to risk it?
KOTSCHEVAR: Cave-ins and everything kind of scared me.
ROBINSON: He's talking about a pair of fatalities last year at the Lucky Friday Mine just a mile from this high school. Because of the risks, mining companies are offering incentives. Many people's paychecks have remained stagnant or disappeared in this area over the last few years. But mining salaries have risen. The average mine worker in the Silver Valley now makes $70,000, some make six figures.
NICK TOMPKINS: Oh, hang on a second, my phone is ringing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
TOMPKINS: My name is Nick Tompkins with Newmont Mining Corporation. I'm the director for talent acquisition.
ROBINSON: Denver-based Newmont was one of three mining companies that held recruitment fairs on the same day last month in Idaho's Silver Valley.
TOMPKINS: We've had quite a few people come through to talk to us. And we're very interested in talking to as many more as we can.
ROBINSON: A recent report commissioned by the mining industry found that a decade-long bust in metal prices led to a lost generation of miners. As the old-timers retire, their ranks will need to be filled by young workers. Nineteen-year-old Brandon Farmin is one of those kids.
BRANDON FARMIN: Every day in school, when I'd be sitting in class, sitting at a desk, listening to some teacher rambling about something I wouldn't listen to, my big thing was that I could be making money right now.
ROBINSON: Farmin graduated from high school last year and went straight to work in the mine. Now, he has cuts on his arms and a few blacked fingernails. He knows it's dangerous.
FARMIN: Nothing gives down there. The only thing that's going to give is your body.
ROBINSON: Farmin made a deal with his grandmother. After a few years in the mine, he'll go to college. But giving up this job will be hard. Farmin just bought a new snowmobile and he says when his high school friends come home from college, they're broke.
FARMIN: Asking mom and dad for money and stuff, you know, that sucks. I'd hate that. And then, like, a lot of them keep asking me how much I make and they'll be telling me how much they're going to be making. And I'm like, yeah, you're going to have a way's to go to catch up to me.
ROBINSON: Of course, that will depend on his body holding up and the price of silver staying high.
For NPR News, I'm Jessica Robinson in Coeur d'Alene.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.