PITTSBURGH - While much of the country struggles with a difficult job market, coal companies are in a heated competition for workers. They’re raiding each other’s employees, renting billboards and even paying for bannertowing planes at beach resorts with generous offers of pay and benefits.
America is looking for coal miners. Demand for coal is increasing, and some of the biggest energy companies say they desperately need help. Despite the dirty, gritty nature of the work, some people are heading back to the mines, drawn by better pay. But recruitment efforts are still falling short of the companies’ hopes.
The labor shortage isn’t just a problem today; the real crunch, according to coal producers and the U.S. Labor Department, will occur in five to seven years, when the industry faces a massive wave of retirements.
There is no next generation of miners to replace them, according to Tom Hoffman, vice president of investor and public relations at Consol Energy, the nation’s largest underground coal producer.
‘‘For the last 15 years or so, we’ve been able to reach back into a pool of experienced miners that had been laid off or who had lost jobs through consolidation,’’ Hoffman said. ‘‘Those guys are now largely gone, either retired or they got out of the business. We’re facing a very big demographic bubble.’’
The number of coal miners nationwide dropped from 159,777 in 1990 to 99,358 the end of 2003, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. And officials with the National Mining Association testified before Congress this summer that more than half of all coal miners are older than 50 and that replacements for them would have to be found before the end of the decade.
Dozens of mining communities saw much of the next generation of miners leave years ago, when there were few prospects for jobs in areas where coal is mined. Now that coal is in demand because of higher prices for oil and natural gas, Consol and other major producers are already smarting from the labor shortage.
Consol, based in Pittsburgh, told investors production was down in some Kentucky mines because operators could not find enough help. And Massey Energy Corp., the fourthlargest U.S. coal company, said last month its thirdquarter profits would suffer due to a labor shortage.
In July, when many coal miners traditionally take vacation, Massey sent airplanes over the resort community of Myrtle Beach, S.C., pulling banners that promised big money and better benefits.
Myrtle Beach is a popular vacation spot for miners from West Virginia, said Jeff Gillenwater, who heads Massey’s recruitment efforts.
Miners who dispersed years ago to places hundreds of miles from the coal fields of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky are the target of recruitment efforts from Gillette, Wyo., to Charlotte, N.C., Gillenwater said. Many in the industry believe that most miners who left did so out of necessity, and would return home if they knew coal mining jobs were there.
‘‘They didn’t leave their homes because they wanted to,’’ said Bruce Watzman, vice president for safety and health at the National Mining Association. ‘‘Many of these guys want to get back to where the family is but, unfortunately, a lot of the mining support system has disappeared since the early 1980s.’’
The money to be made mining in rural coal areas far outpaces almost all other jobs in those communities and is already drawing young men back. Many are carrying on a family tradition they had believed was lost with their fathers.
Miners can start at $40,000 to $50,000, but can make as much as $100,000 if they work all the overtime that is to be had.