August 2016: the crowd is buzzing, bristling with video-ready smartphones, waiting to catch Candidate Trump's big entrance. Hard rock is blasting, and a clutch of ecstatic travel agents is waving signs emblazoned "TRUMP," peppered with clever slogans. They go wild when he takes the stage and promises to end the War on Travel Agents, rejuvenating their battered industry.
That didn't happen of course. Trump made similar promises to sign-waving industry representatives, but the industry was coal. In a way, though, it would have made more sense for him to cleave to the travel agent lobby, to make policies and personnel choices with their interests in mind, and to invite them to televised signing ceremonies in the Oval Office. There were 68,680 travel agents in the U.S. in May 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
There were just 49,800 coal miners that month.
At the time of writing, the most recent data puts coal mining employment at a seasonally adjusted 50,300 in March 2017. That is approximately 0.03% of the 160 million-strong civilian labor force. Besides travel agents, other professions that far out-employ coal include aircraft mechanics and service technicians (128,570 in May 2016), roofers (116,410), telemarketers (215,290) and fitness trainers and aerobic instructors (257,410). Many individual companies employee more people, including Sears, which – despite its existential financial worries – employed 140,000 people at the end of 2016.
According to the Department of Energy, 260,077 workers spent at least half their time " working to manufacture, install, distribute, or provide professional services to solar technologies across the nation." (See also, Top 4 Alternative Energy Stocks for 2017.)
The reasons that coal country jobs have found themselves at the center of American politics are varied and complicated. So are the reasons behind the coal industry's decline, which led to the bankruptcies of several major firms last year, including Arch Coal Inc. (ARCH) and Peabody Energy Corp. (BTU). Obama's Green Power Plan is often cited as one reason, but it would not have gone into effect until 2022. Trump, who ordered Scott Pruitt's Environmental Protection Agency to review the rule in March, is expected to eliminate it. Competition from natural gas – due to fracking – has also damaged the industry, as has a broad reduction in the amount of energy required to generate economic growth. Automation has reduced the need for human labor, so that employees are faring worse even than their firms.
Yet as much as they are struggling, coal miners have pulled off something amazing. The next time you marvel at the influence wielded by the highest-earning 1% or 0.1% of the country, think of the 0.03% – not exactly billionaires – who have mined such a deep vein of America's political psyche.