MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Few people think of coal mining as a good career move, but in central Appalachia, the coal business is hot. 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. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
To appreciate how badly some coal companies need new workers, consider this scene at Myrtle Beach last summer. The resort is a favorite among Appalachian miners. So one company paid to have a plane fly over the water trailing a banner advertising mining jobs. Within the next decade, mining companies expect to replace about half their underground work force, creating opportunities for thousands of people. Alpha Natural Resources, a Virginia company, has started something the mining business hasn't seen in many years, an apprentice program. It provides on-the-job training to people with no experience. Matthew Day is a new recruit. He's 23 years old and this is his second day on the job. Day stands outside the mouth of a mine, washing coal from a conveyor belt. His face is smeared black. Like most new miners, he's in it for the money.
Mr. MATTHEW DAY (Apprentice): Well, the main reason I decided, I just had a little girl and I've been doing electrical work for the last, you know, five years. And in this area, you know, it's not a real good way to make a living. More or less the reason I was doing it was because, you know, they got great benefits and, you know, the pay's good.
LANGFITT: Day made about $24,000 annually as an electrician. In the mines, he thinks he could soon double that. Another reason Day got into mining?
Mr. DAY: 'Cause I don't have any education, you know, other than a high school education. This is the only thing in this area that, you know, pays well for someone with no education.
LANGFITT: Apprentices like Day work in far more sophisticated mines than their grandfathers did. Picks and shovels are long gone. Much of the equipment is computerized and requires training. Alpha will spend six months to a year teaching novices how to operate and service a variety of cutting, bolting and hauling machines that cost millions of dollars. Day works at one of Alpha's mines in southwestern Virginia. His shift begins with a two-mile journey underground in a mantrip, a squat, diesel-powered buggy. After 10 minutes, the miners arrive at the face, which is where they do the digging.
(Soundbite of men working)
LANGFITT: They tromp across the mine's black muddy floor, crouching beneath the ceiling that is less than five feet in places. The face is about 450 feet below the surface and the temperatures here can dip into the 50s. Even when it's warm, the air is so filled with moisture in spots, you can see your breath.
(Soundbite of tapping)
LANGFITT: An older worker named Gomez Adams is replacing carbon-tipped teeth on a continuous miner, a wheeled machine that digs coal.
Mr. GOMEZ ADAMS (Miner): This is what does the work. Years ago, they discovered that you could dig coal with a pick, and then they discovered that you put a bunch of picks on a rotating drum, you can dig coal a lot faster.
LANGFITT: Armed with fresh teeth, the continuous miner rises to the task.
(Soundbite of machine)
LANGFITT: Mine superintendent Henry Keith explains.
Mr. HENRY KEITH (Mine Superintendent): We're taking the miner up in place. He's going to cut it 11 feet wide and 32 feet deep, and he's just going to load these cars. They hold about 10 ton each. So he's going to load them, they're going to take them to the feeder and dump it, put it on the belt. We have three cars running. So soon as one leaves, another one come in behind it.
LANGFITT: The miner tears into a pillar of coal. On the other side of the pillar, the roof cracks.
(Soundbite of a pop)
LANGFITT: The coal falls away from the walls.
Mr. JOHN SCHOOLCRAFT (Human Resources): That pop, that's real good.
LANGFITT: That's John Schoolcraft. He oversees human resources for the mine. He says there's nothing to fear.
Mr. SCHOOLCRAFT: As we extract the coal from a pillar, then we want the roof to fall on the other side of the pillar because it relieves pressure from back here where we are right now. So when you hear those pops and bumps, that's a good sound.
LANGFITT: Once loaded, the shuttle car takes coal from the face to a conveyor belt, which carries it up to the surface and outside. Mike Quillen(ph) grew up in southwestern Virginia. He spent three decades in the mining business. Several years ago, he began buying up mines and started his own company, Alpha. Today, the firm has 64 mines and employs 2,600 people. Quillen is sitting in his office in Abingdon, an hour's drive from the mine. He says with more mines opening and older miners retiring, he will have to hire hundreds more people in the next few years.
Mr. MIKE QUILLEN (Alpha Natural Resources): We recognize we've got a transition coming in the industry. And now we've got to attract people back into the industry. And right now, today, they're just--there are no really skilled experienced miners that aren't employed. If there's an unemployed skilled miner today, there's got to be a reason why he's not because there's tremendous opportunity out there for people.
LANGFITT: Despite the coal industry's ups and downs, Quillen says he's optimistic about the future. Today, coal generates more than half of the country's electricity. And demand in China has helped double the price Alpha and other US firms can charge for the kind of coal used to make steel. But if coal companies want to attract more workers, Quillen says the industry has to educate them better about modern mining.
Mr. QUILLEN: Coal's going to be used for many years forward. We haven't gotten that message out, but we are getting out. People are beginning to understand that, you know, with the demand for electricity generation, it's going to be here. Second is, is that it's not a strong back-type industry anymore. We're going to be replacing a whole work force here, thousands in the industry and that, you know, it is technical.
LANGFITT: Today, coal miners rely more on skill than muscle. Workers operate continuous miners by remote control. Veteran miner Jim Rose explains.
Mr. JIM ROSE (Veteran Miner): You have a remote control box that you sit, hold and run, all kinds of little buttons. You've got to learn where they are, what they do, you know, like playing a big video game with your life on the line. You know, anything you do, if you're not careful, you could crush yourself. You got to make sure you stay out of the turning radius of it, make sure where everybody is around you, you know, just basically be aware of your entire environment.
LANGFITT: But as Quillen, the mine owner, paints a bright future for coal, even some of his workers have doubts. Rose went straight from high school underground. Asked if his teen-age son should follow his lead, Rose is clear.
Mr. ROSE: There's more opportunities out there than mining. Mining's not going to last forever. It's--I've made a good living at it, but I would rather he do something else.
LANGFITT: The fatality rate for coal miners has dropped 35 percent since 1990 according to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. In 2003, 30 coal miners died on the job. Coal mining has the fifth highest fatality rate among industries with published data, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Logging is number one. But even as coal mine fatalities fall, a single death can still have a big impact on a family. Joe Kennedy spent two decades in the mines. His brother, Greg, worked for Alpha. Two years ago, Greg was running a continuous miner by remote control. The machine accidentally crushed him against a wall.
Mr. JOE KENNEDY (Miner): It hurt me real bad. And I still hurt over it. My father was a coal miner. I was, my brother, and I hurt just as bad today as I did the day he got killed.
LANGFITT: Kennedy was laid off before his brother died. Given a chance to return to work, he refused. He says he was scared.
Mr. KENNEDY: I was worried about if I go in there, am I going to be able to come back out to my family?
LANGFITT: The new miners at Alpha worry about getting hurt, too. But with the hope of big paychecks, they're willing to risk it.
(Soundbite of a backup beeper)
LANGFITT: Back at the mouth of the mine, Matthew Day says that some friends think he's crazy to work underground.
Mr. DAY: It don't have a very good reputation, I don't think. And a lot of people just think it's dangerous and, I mean, in a way it is, but if you're cautious and watch what you're doing, you know, you should be OK.
LANGFITT: If all goes well, Day could make a good living as a miner. But over every coal boom, the same question looms, how long will it last? Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.