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 never did 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 switch sides 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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There were just 49,800 coal miners that month.
- The coal mining industry in the U.S. has been on the decline for several decades.
- In fact, the entire coal mining industry is relatively small in the U.S. and concentrated in just a few states.
- Still, politicians like to make hay out of promising to bring coal mining jobs back to the U.S., a pledge that is hardly fulfilled.
- Coal jobs have been lost to a variety of factors including a push for greener energy and more efficient technology used in coal mining.
- Today, U.S. coal jobs are just 40% of what they were a decade earlier.
Energy Jobs and Energy Policy
The reasons that coal country jobs have often found themselves at the center of American politics are varied and complicated. So are the reasons behind the coal industry's long decline over the past few decades, which has led to the eventual bankruptcies of several major firms in the last years including Arch Coal Inc. (ARCH) and Peabody Energy Corp. (BTU).
Obama's Green Power Plan during his presidency is often cited as one reason for the decline of coal, but Obama's regulations and incentives would not have gone into effect until 2022. Trump instead ordered Scott Pruitt's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review and eliminate the measures. Competition from natural gas—in part due to fracking—has also damaged the coal industry, as has a broad reduction in the amount of energy required to generate economic growth. Automation has furthermore reduced the need for human labor, so that employees are faring worse even than their firms.
With the Biden administration, renewable energy such as solar power is again high on the policy priority list. According to the Department of Energy, in 2021 nearly 300,000 Americans were employed at least part-time working to manufacture, install, distribute, or provide professional services to solar technologies across the nation.
Coal mining jobs have been on a steady decline over the past decades. In January of 2022, the BLS estimated that the coal industry employed around 36,500 Americans, down from nearly 90,000 ten years earlier.
Coal mining jobs make up only around 0.02% of the 160 million-strong civilian labor force in the U.S. Besides travel agents, other professions that far out-employ coal include aircraft mechanics and service technicians, roofers, telemarketers, and fitness trainers 257,410. Many individual companies, in fact, employ more people than the entire group of coal miners, such as Amazon, Walmart, and even the fast Chinese food chain Panda Restaurant Group!
It cannot, however, all be related to the number of job openings shrinking. In 2021 and 2022, coal industry employers could not find enough workers to fill their positions. It may be that people simply do not find coal mining as attractive an employment proposition as they did in the past. Mining is dirty, dangerous, requires physical effort over long days, and pays relatively low wages. It seems that even with dangling higher wages, people may simply not want to return to the coal mines.
West Virginia is home to the greatest number of coal miners in the U.S., making up roughly one-third of all American coal miners.
How Many Coal Jobs Are There in the U.S.?
As of January 2022, there were approximately 36,500 coal mining jobs in the U.S.
How Many Jobs Does the Coal Industry Provide in West Virginia?
In 2020, West Virginia employed around 11,400 coal miners, or roughly one-third of all coal miners in the U.S. Mining makes up the state's largest single contributor to GDP, at around 12.25%.
How Many Coal Jobs Are There in the World?
According to some estimates, the global coal industry (including miners and other types of workers) employs roughly 7 million people worldwide, mostly concentrated in countries like China, India, Indonesia, and Russia.
The Bottom Line
As much as they claim to be 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.