Putting Coal Workers on the Path to Dignity and Opportunity through Human Work

Jamie Merisotis
Oct 1, 2020 · 3 min read
iStock / Curto I Curto

See more on the work of the future — and how people can find and keep good jobs in an age of smart machines and artificial intelligence — in the new Jamie Merisotis book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

By Jamie Merisotis

Coal didn’t come back. And it won’t.

Efforts to revive industries that are being transformed by automation, environmental and other considerations are often well-meaning but ultimately doomed to fail as market forces, political factors and consumer interests evolve. But strategies to rethink the fundamental needs of the displaced human workers from those industries offer a different path.

A recent story in the Lexington Herald Leader reported that coal industry employment in Eastern Kentucky averaged around 3,800 in the first half of 2016. In the same period this year, the industry employed an average of just under 2,300 people, according to state government data. Statewide, Kentucky employment numbers in the coal industry are down by more than a third, from around 6,500 in 2016 to 3,800 this year.

National data paint a similarly bleak picture. In late 2016, there were about 50,000 jobs in the coal industry. More than three years later, in February 2020 — before the devastation brought on by COVID — those numbers hadn’t increased. This is a major decline from the “glory days” of the first decade of the millennium, when employment was well over 100,000.

Coal is just one of many industries likely to be transformed permanently by technology; COVID simply accelerated that trend. And the trend is irreversible — no matter what politicians may promise. The answer is to transform the workforce, to help coal workers transition into adjacent spaces where they can continue to do work that matters — work that machines can’t do.

At the same time, that work must be in a field that values and rewards the skills that workers have developed in their former careers. Most workers who lose jobs in declining sectors won’t succeed in fields they can’t relate to, despite the allure of such radical shifts. For instance, truck drivers are more likely to find viable opportunities working in logistics or supply chain management than as computer coders for self-driving vehicles.

So how can workers from industries such as coal make the jump to the human work economy? How can we put them on a path of greater self-sufficiency while giving them the knowledge and skills they need to navigate a rapidly changing work landscape? The key is to employ smart, targeted strategies that prepare them for the work of the future.

One organization trying to address that is Coalfield Development Corporation, a West Virginia-based entity that was profiled by PBS New Hour in 2017. “Coalfield,” for short, is a nonprofit that helps displaced coal industry workers get training and jobs in sustainable industries such as agriculture, carpentry, and other fields where human traits and capabilities will be required for many years to come.

Coalfield has “launched new businesses that … will generate sustainable jobs — everything from furniture making and solar installation to home building and agriculture,” reporter Hari Sreenivasan noted. Participants take life skills classes and are required to attend community college classes at least six hours per week.

Since it was established a decade ago, Coalfield has trained more than 1,200 workers. As of late August, the organization had created more than 50 businesses and at least 250 full-time jobs.

Individuals who have been through the Coalfield program say it represents a different, more human-centered approach to job training and life skills development — one that respects who workers are and where they have been.

“Coalfield has provided opportunities for employment and training that other employers don’t try or consider,” Jaron Ekers, a trainee with the organization, told the Huntington (WV) Herald-Dispatch. “Coalfield looks more at the person and not just their history when making a decision to provide an employment opportunity.”

Coal’s failed comeback has had a devastating impact on communities and the people who must thrive in them. Putting coal workers on a new path of dignity and opportunity through human work is the best way forward.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

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