Story at a glance

  • At a rally yesterday, Joe Biden advised a crowd in a coal mining town to learn computer programming.
  • Proposals to retrain coal miners have received bipartisan support, and The U.S. Department of Labor announced a grant of nearly $5 million for working training programs in Appalachia this year.
  • Retraining programs have a questionable record of success and have not been a guarantee of employment for coal miners who have lost their jobs.
  • Researchers advise that investing in industries based in the local area can ease the transition out of mining.

During a rally yesterday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden spoke to a crowd in Derry, N.H., a town that many miners call home. He acknowledged the economic setbacks and job insecurity that coal miners face these days, and gave them some advice: learn to code.

According to Dave Weigel of the Washington Post, Biden said, "Anybody who can go down 3,000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well... Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God's sake!" 

According to Weigel, the comment was met with silence from the audience. 

Biden's campaign has proposed moving the U.S. away from fossil fuels to reduce the country's carbon footprint. He advocates helping lifelong miners secure sustainable jobs and keep their benefits. His plan calls for a 'Task Force on Coal and Power Plant Communities' to reinvigorate communities that depend on mining and coal as their economic backbone. The plan would invest in assets of mining communities, "like a rich culture, natural beauty, a proven workforce, and entrepreneurial spirit." 

Retraining programs have received bipartisan support. The U.S. Department of Labor announced a fund of nearly $5 million for working training programs in Appalachia earlier this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently announced $2 million in funding from the National Dislocated Workers fund, and Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced a fund of more than $1 million from the same fund. 

Although they are often touted as a solution, retraining programs have a questionable record of success. Some displaced coal workers do transition into other fields or industries, but critics say that the jobs that former coal workers usually find tend to pay only $12 to $15 dollars per hour as opposed to the approximate $75,000 a year salary that coal workers had while working in the mines. 

Josh Benton, the deputy secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet in mining-heavy Kentucky, told Ohio Valley ReSource that the biggest problem is whether or not workers actually have other jobs based out of where they live.

"The challenge that we face is not necessarily are the training programs effective? It is, are there other industries, for those displaced workers to go to work," he said.

Some former coal workers resist the training programs altogether, hoping their industry will rebound. And others find it too daunting to learn a complicated new skill late in life.

"I think that job training keeps being promoted because it solves a political problem both for elected officials and for employers, but it doesn't do anything for the economics," Gordon Lafer, a University of Oregon professor and author of "The Job Training Charade" told Ohio Valley ReSource. Instead, Lafer recommended training people and investing in industries that have to stay local. He mentioned healthcare, construction, education, and tourism as promising fields. 

The need for a solution for coal miners continues. Although the industry added 4,500 jobs from 2016 to 2018, U.S. coal production decreased by 10 percent in 2019 and jobs are at risk. 

"People are going to have to get laid off," Andrew Cosgrove, a mining analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence has said. "They're going to have to close mines."

Published on Dec 31, 2019