With a Boost from the Oil Industry, Coal Miners Train for New Jobs

After spending time in and out of coal mines, Jason Meyers found himself out of work after Alpha Natural Resources filed for bankruptcy and closed the mine where he worked for six years. A married father of two, Meyers — whose uncle also lost his 30-year job at the Emerald Coal Mine — decided it was time to look for work outside of the coal industry, long the economic backbone of the Appalachian region and his family’s livelihood.

“There weren’t too many jobs to begin with, and the market was flooded with out-of-work coal miners and I just gave up hope on it,” said Meyers, 32. “I just kind of decided I wanted to get away from that industry and do something that was there to stay.”

In the Appalachian region alone, more than 23,000 coal miners have been laid off since 2011, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission, a decline that has not gone unnoticed on the national stage. In fact, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton has announced a $30 million proposal to help coal miners find new work.

But many are starting to pursue new careers — from welding to computer coding — because of job-training programs paid for by private partnerships. Meyers received $15,000 from the UMWA–BCOA Training and Education Fund and the Appalachia Partnership Initiative (API), a multi-year effort to address STEM education and workforce needs in the region, to help him pay for the 11-month welding course, which he said “wouldn’t have been in the cards” without the financial assistance.

API, supported by Chevron, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Grable Foundation and the RAND Corporation, helps to arm students and workers throughout the tri-state area of southwest Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and the panhandle of West Virginia, with technology and middle skills training for jobs in the region’s energy and manufacturing industries. To date, nearly $3 million of Chevron’s funding and more than $2 million from the partners, publicly funded grants, and other regional companies and foundations have gone to workforce development programs in the Appalachia.

“Through API, Chevron and its partners are helping former coal workers get back on their feet while training a workforce that meets the current needs of Appalachia,” said Trip Oliver, manager of policy, government and public affairs at Chevron’s Appalachian/Michigan Strategic Business Unit located in Pittsburgh, PA. “API was formed to address significant skills gaps in the capacity of the local workforce and the growing opportunities in energy and advanced manufacturing.”

Two separate reports from RAND and the Allegheny Conference released this year identify occupations and skill sets — including petroleum engineers, drill operators, welders and machinists — that will be in highest demand in this region through 2025. The studies also illuminate the challenges for employers including a projected shortage of workers and a need to better align education and training with workforce demand. Research funded by the Allegheny Conference in 2012 originally found that a shortage of skills in the local workforce — especially in the areas of science, technology and engineering could prevent companies from filling thousands of new jobs in the region.

“Chevron has played a critical role in helping to fund our retraining and job development services, particularly at the beginning,” said Lisa Neil, president at Southwest Training Services, which helped Meyers find his training course, and is providing services to many of the estimated 2,500 laid-off coal miners — 100 of which are already enrolled in retraining programs for careers in various industries.

Meyers doesn’t like to dwell on the macroeconomic or regulatory forces behind his job loss. “I kind of let the political part of it just go,” Meyers said. “I just went in to do my job and they paid me good money to do it.”

He is hoping for the same in his new profession as a welder. Someday he hopes to open his own welding shop.