What’s Up in Coal Country: Alternative-Energy Jobs

From the mountain hollows of Appalachia to the vast open plains of Wyoming, the coal industry long offered the promise of a six-figure income without a four-year college degree, transforming sleepy farm towns into thriving commercial centers.

But today, as King Coal is being dethroned — by cheap natural gas, declining demand for electricity, and even green energy — what’s a former miner to do?

Nowhere has that question had more urgency than in Wyoming and West Virginia, two very different states whose economies lean heavily on fuel extraction. With energy prices falling or stagnant, both have lost population and had middling economic growth in recent years. In national rankings of economic vitality, you can find them near the bottom of the pile.

Their fortunes have declined as coal has fallen from providing more than half of the nation’s electricity in 2000 to about one-third last year. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs and moved on — leaving idled mines, abandoned homes and shuttered stores downtown.

Now, though, new businesses are emerging. They are as varied as the layers of rock that surround a coal seam, but in a twist, a considerable number involve renewable energy. And past jobs in fossil fuels are proving to make for good training.

In Wyoming, home to the nation’s most productive coal region by far, the American subsidiary of a Chinese maker of wind turbines is putting together a training program for technicians in anticipation of a large power plant it expects to supply. And in West Virginia, a nonprofit outfit called Solar Holler — “Mine the Sun,” reads the tagline on its website — is working with another group, Coalfield Development, to train solar panel installers and seed an entire industry.

Taken together, along with programs aimed at teaching computer coding or beekeeping, they show ways to ease the transition from fossil fuels to a more diverse energy mix — as well as the challenges.

‘Absolutely No Catch’

GILLETTE, Wyo. — John Davila, 61, worked for 20 years at Arch Coal’s Black Thunder Mine in Eastern Wyoming, a battered titan from an industry whose importance to the region is easy to see — whether in the sign in the visitors’ center window proclaiming, “Wyoming Coal: Proud to Provide America’s Energy,” or in the brimming train cars that rumble out of the Eagle Butte mine on the outskirts of town.

But in April last year, at a regular crew meeting in the break room, he was among those whose envelope held a termination notice rather than a work assignment. “They called it a ‘work force reduction,’” said Mr. Davila, whose straight, dark ponytail hangs down his back. “Nice way to put it, but it still means you’re out of a job.”

So a summertime Thursday morning found him, along with a couple of dozen other men and women, in a nondescript lecture room at a community college, learning how a different source of energy, wind, might make them proud, too.

The seminar was the last of three that week organized by Goldwind Americas, which is ready to provide as many as 850 giant wind turbines for a power plant planned in the state. The company was looking for candidates, particularly unemployed coal miners like Mr. Davila, to become technicians to maintain and operate the turbines.

The program, which is to teach the basics of wind farm operation, maintenance and safety over two weeks in October, would cost the participants nothing but their time, organizers said. Those who wanted to test their potential would have a chance to climb a 250-foot tower that Saturday at a farm Goldwind owns in Montana. And if they completed the full program, they would have certifications that could open the door with any employer they chose.

“There’s absolutely no catch – you don’t like me, you don’t like Goldwind, that’s O.K.,” David Halligan, the company’s chief executive, told an even larger crowd in Casper the day before. “There’s going to be opportunity across the country.”

It is a message of hope that has been in short supply, especially after the loss of more than 1,000 jobs in the region and the bankruptcies last year of three major producers. But while coal’s prospects have been dying down, wind development is poised to explode in the state, which has some of the world’s strongest and most consistent winds. And while coal mining jobs have fallen to historic lows nationally in recent years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that wind-energy technician will be the fastest-growing occupation, more than doubling over the next seven years.

Though most of the coal jobs lost last year have since returned as companies have emerged from bankruptcy, the insecurity surrounding the industry remains. “It’s been a little scary when you’ve got people all around you getting laid off,” Brandon Sims, 37, an Air Force veteran who works for an explosives company that serves the mines, said outside the lecture room. “You never really know when your day to get the pink slip is.”

Hands-On Practice

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Coal mining was already dead in Crum, a town of less than 200 just this side of the Kentucky border, by the time Ethan Spaulding, 26, graduated from high school, he said. That dashed his hopes of becoming a roof bolter, helping stabilize the ceilings of mine tunnels. “You don’t even have to have a high school diploma to go to the coal industry,” he said, “and you can start making $150,000 a year.” Or perhaps you once could.

Mr. Spaulding was standing near the railroad tracks at the edge of town where trains move coal out of the region, behind a dilapidated brick building that once housed a high-end suit factory. It is becoming a hub for the family of social enterprises that Coalfield Development leads, which include rehabilitating buildings, installing solar panels, and an agriculture program that grows produce and is turning an old mine site into a solar-powered fish farm.

Wanting to stay in Crum, Mr. Spaulding went through the solar program Coalfield runs with Solar Holler, which offers its participants a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship. He is now a crew chief at the training center, overseeing the renovation of a larger classroom inside the building. Though he is optimistic that he can eventually reach his target income in the solar industry, the installation jobs for which the trainees will ultimately qualify generally pay far less — $26 an hour, on average, nationally.

And yet there is keen interest. For David Ward, 40, managing installations at Solar Holler helps repay the student loans he ran up pursuing a degree in counseling — a growth industry in a state reeling from opioid addiction. An electrician, he said he was “interested in the idea of making your own power and the environmental impact.”

The program is the brainchild of Brandon Dennison and Dan Conant, two West Virginians who wanted to help develop a sustainable economy in the state. Mr. Dennison, 31, started Coalfield Development in 2010; it grew out of a volunteer effort to build low-income green housing. Mr. Conant, 32, had worked on political campaigns, including Barack Obama’s first presidential contest. After becoming involved in the solar industry, he concluded that rooftop solar development, with its individual, decentralized nature, could combine the door-to-door approach of political campaigning with a technology to fight climate change.

He completed the first Solar Holler project — putting panels on the Presbyterian church in his hometown, Shepherdstown, on the Potomac River — and, quickly overwhelmed with demand for similar installations, realized the state didn’t have a work force to handle it. So he formed a partnership with Mr. Dennison’s organization to develop one. At Coalfield’s facility here, participants learn how the arrays create electricity and connect to the power system, but they also get practice installing panels on a shed behind the main building. That helps them clear one of the basic industry hurdles: becoming comfortable working on a roof.

A View Most Never See

SHAWMUT, Mont. — If a big worry for would-be solar installers is staying balanced while ferrying heavy glass-sheathed panels around a roof, for potential wind energy technicians it is whether they can climb more than 200 feet in broiling heat or icy cold and emerge into the gusts to fix machinery. Still, the Goldwind technicians say working so high up is one of the job’s best features.

“You get a view that most people will never see,” as Lukas Nelson, 27, a site manager in Ohio, put it in one of the company’s promotional videos. Only a few towers have elevators, and at Goldwind’s power plant here, the access is by a series of 90-degree aluminum ladders and steel mesh platforms, straight to the top.

It was Saturday morning after the three seminars, and Goldwind safety managers had delivered a brief lecture in a trailer that served as the farm office, warning of perils like rattlesnakes in the tall grasses outside and electrocution from throwing switches in the towers.

The organizers separated the crowd of about 20 into two groups. One would take a tour of the wind farm and substation while the other climbed towers whose blades sat idle. After lunch, they would switch.

In front of the trailer, Chancey Coffelt, 33, Goldwind’s regional safety manager, was showing the climbing group how to put on harnesses — a network of heavy metal clips and rings attached to straps that thread over the shoulders, across the chest and around each thigh. They would latch onto a rope pulley system as they climbed each of four ladders and then hook into a bracket as they reached each platform before freeing themselves from the pulley.

Mr. Davila, the 20-year mine veteran, was standing with members of the second group, chatting about Wyoming’s wobbly energy economy and how wind might — and might not — steady it. “A lot of coal miners don’t like wind or solar, but you need them all,” Mr. Davila said. “It’s like a puzzle you have to solve: just think about how many things we plug in.”

Still, many of the men expressed concern over what the jobs would pay, saying the salaries paled in comparison to what they could earn on an oil rig, for instance.

“It’s so easy to get a six-figure job in the oil industry,” Jesse Morgan, a baby-faced 31-year-old city councilman and back-office worker at a drilling services company, had said over beers at a bar in Casper where he was asked to show ID. “You get addicted to that money.”

But it could be worth taking a pay cut to get out from under the stress of constantly planning for the next layoff, and being able to return home at night rather than working 30- to 40-day stints offshore. The oil field never stops, Mr. Morgan said of his time on the rigs. “It’s 24/7 — you miss birthdays, every holiday.”

As with the other men, Mr. Morgan’s work experience made him an attractive candidate for Goldwind. Accustomed to the industrial behemoths of fossil fuel production, he is familiar with the environment, equipment and procedures of working safely while surrounded by danger — like remembering to fasten the chin strap on a hard hat so it won’t slip off and injure a colleague laboring hundreds of feet below.

Chelsae Clemons, 26, a technician at a Goldwind plant in Findlay, Ohio, said the emphasis on safety and training was part of the program’s value. Among the few staff members at the seminars with a bachelor’s degree, she had worked in a lab at a hospital and had little relevant experience when she decided to pursue a career in renewable energy. In Gillette, she told the crowd, “They’re giving certifications I had to pay for.”

‘This Is Bee Paradise’

HINTON, W.Va. — “Solar’s not going to be everything, and one of the big challenges for the state is how do we diversify and get lots of cool stuff going,” Mr. Conant, the Solar Holler founder, was saying as he drove from a solar installation at a hilltop farmhouse toward a 1940s summer camp that the local coal company provided for the children of its employees until 1984. “When you’ve been a one-industry town for a really long time, that’s an issue. The last thing we would want to do is pin our hopes on doing that again, just with some other technology.”

After winding down a road canopied by emerald-green trees, he passed the opening of the Great Bend Tunnel, during whose construction in the 1870s, as one legend tells it, the African-American folk hero John Henry beat a steam drill in opening a hole in the rock, only to die from his efforts. Minutes later, Mr. Conant came to Camp Lightfoot, which a nonprofit organization, Appalachian Headwaters, is turning into an apiary with an eye toward helping displaced coal workers and military veterans get into the honey business. Early next year, Mr. Conant plans to install solar panels on an old gymnasium, which now holds racks of wood frames for the hives.

Deborah Delaney, an assistant professor of entomology and wildlife ecology who oversees the apiary and bee program at the University of Delaware, said the area was well suited for a honey enterprise. It is largely forest, unsullied by the pesticides that threaten the insects in industrial farm areas, and it has plant species like black locust and sourwood whose honey can fetch a high price.

“This is bee paradise,” she said, sitting on the porch of the cafeteria building where a Patriot Coal banner hung askew on one wall. For now, Ms. Delaney and the program’s staff are getting the colony established on a hillside in 86 hives that buzz away behind electrified wire fencing to protect them from bears. Next spring, they plan to distribute about 150 hives to 35 beekeepers either free or through a low- or no-interest loan. Come harvest time, the beekeepers would bring their honey-laden frames to the camp for extraction and processing; organizers would pay them for their yield and then sell the honey to support the program.

“For some people it might be a side hustle, but for other people it could really turn into, over time, a true income that could sustain a family,” said Kate Asquith, program director at Appalachian Headwaters.

Economists say this kind of diversification is important, especially in a region where coal is unlikely to make a major comeback, even if Trump administration policies are able to foster a revival elsewhere. Demand is strongest for the low-sulfur coal from the Powder River Basin straddling Wyoming and Montana, rather than what Appalachia produces. The new-energy industries cannot replicate what coal once did, economists say. Long-term jobs at the Wyoming wind farm would number in the hundreds at best, while the solar program thus far trains only 10 workers each year.

Even a coal boom wouldn’t create jobs the way it used to: like the steam drill that ultimately took John Henry’s place, new equipment and technologies have replaced workers in heavy industries. Production of coal, for instance, increased over all from the 1920s until 2010, while the number of jobs dropped to 110,000 from 870,000.

So interest in the bees has been high here. “Thought it was weird at first — bugs in a box in the backyard,” said Sean Phelps, 27, who left a secure job as a school janitor to work with the bee program. Exposure to his father-in-law’s hives changed his perspective. Now he sees them as a way to help the area, as well as fun. “This is what I want to do,” he said. “Whenever you’re out in them, it reduces a lot of stress.”

Interrupted by a Storm

SHAWMUT, Mont. — It was after lunch, and Mr. Davila and Mr. Morgan were at the base of one of the wind towers, wearing heavy harnesses and waiting for the first group to finish so they could start the climb. Suddenly, Jason Willbanks, 39, who lost a job as an electrician with a coal company and now drives crews to and from their shifts on coal trains, emerged from within. Walking heavily into the blazing sunlight, he clattered onto the metal platform and stairs. Asked how he was, he shot back: “Sweating like a fat guy at an all-day dance.”

As he pulled off the harness, dropped to his knees in a patch of shade on the grass and rolled onto his back, Mr. Davila offered him a bottle of water from a cooler. “You’ve earned it,” he said.

Not long after, word came from the Goldwind crew: A thunderstorm was heading toward the farm, so the second group could not climb.

“I feel like I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go,” Mr. Davila said, disappointed, gesturing toward the harness. “ I wanted to see if I could get up.”

“You’ve just witnessed what it’s like to be a wind-turbine technician,” Mr. Coffelt, the safety manager, said, cocking an ear over one shoulder and suggesting that the group move away from the rattlesnake he had heard. “Imagine if you’re one or two stacks up when you get that alert: right back down we come.” After weighing options, the Goldwind organizers called it a day, offering repeated apologies and promises to get the men back to the site which, over the following months, they did.

Mr. Morgan, who posted a beaming selfie from atop the turbine on Facebook, did not apply for the training program. But Mr. Davila did, and was accepted.

He is torn over whether to enroll, he said. He is desperate for the work but hesitant to leave his wife and home in Gillette, where he has lived since he was 6, for one of the jobs immediately available outside the state. Still, he added with a chuckle, it might be good to move: “Maybe there’s more to the world than Gillette.”

Home Healthcare: Shouldn’t It’s Work Worth Doing?

Are you aware who’s going to look after you when you’re old and frail? By current standards, it’s apt to be a middle-aged immigrant lady, with perhaps a senior high school education and minimum training, making $20,000 annually.

And that’s if you’re lucky. If you reside in rural America, you might already have a problem finding somebody to take care of you. Paul Osterman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management calculates when there is nothing completed to draw more workers in to the field, you will see lack of a minimum of 350,000 compensated health care providers by 2040.

This, I know you’ll agree, makes little sense.

How you can provide lengthy-term take care of a fast-aging population poses one of the most convoluted challenges from the American labor market. Health care providers — home health aides, personal care family and friends and cnas, within the government’s classification — are anticipated to become one of the nation’s fastest-growing jobs. The Department of Labor’s economists expect in regards to a million more is going to be added from 2014 to 2024.

But despite their critical importance towards the well-being of millions of aging Americans, one-4th of those aides reside in poverty. The roles are extremely unappealing it problematical to help keep workers inside them: four in 10 leave the occupation entirely inside a year. Many like the fast-food business.

“Home care is completely the underside rung around the ladder, but home-care personnel are the folks that spend probably the most time using the client,” stated Adria Powell, who runs Cooperative Homecare Associates, a staff-owned lengthy-term-care agency in New You are able to.

As President Trump offers to recover the roles of the ancestral age populated by well-compensated coal miners, steelworkers and assemblers of air-conditioners, he’s missing probably the most critical challenges from the American work pressure: transforming lengthy-term care right into a greater-quality, better-compensated job that may offer the middle-class for the future.

It is possible. In the new book, “Who Will Take Care Of Us?,” to become printed the following month through the Russell Sage Foundation, Professor Osterman shows that improving these jobs could really enhance the quality and efficiency from the entire healthcare system. “It could save the machine money,” he explained.

There’s a couple of reasons lengthy-term care is really a poor job. “Most people it as being glorified babysitting,” stated Robert Espinoza, v . p . for policy at PHI, an advocacy group for private care workers which develops advanced training curriculums to enhance the caliber of the job pressure.

The truth that most personnel are immigrant women doesn’t assist the occupation’s status. Work-related rules that reserve even simple tasks for nurses, like delivering an insulin shot or perhaps putting drops right into a patient’s eye, also behave as an obstacle against supplying care workers with better training.

But possibly the most crucial barrier may be the government’s budget: State medicaid programs — funded by federal and condition governments — accumulates over fifty percent the tab for that $300 billion approximately spent each year on lengthy-term care.

States spend about $200 billion that belongs to them funds on State medicaid programs. It’s the second-greatest item on their own budget, after education. To boost reimbursement rates for lengthy-term care agencies, they would need to discover the money elsewhere.

Still, Professor Osterman highlights that shortchanging lengthy-term care is shortsighted. Home health aides educated to do more — to place patients’ health issues, to keep an eye on their pills and doctors’ appointments and also to offer suggestions about a healthier lifestyle — could wring vast amounts of dollars in savings in the healthcare system.

Better-trained aides may help patients manage chronic conditions like weight problems and diabetes. They might also aid manage the transition from a medical facility, making certain that patients required their medication and adopted track of the physician, to avoid them from getting a relapse or selecting an elderly care facility.

One assessment from the academic literature concluded there are $250 billion in savings available from better managing chronic conditions and reducing hospital and er admissions and readmissions.

And you will find other jobs for private care aides to complete. For example, community health workers doing home visits might help bridge the space between patients and doctors — improving rates of immunization, helping manage conditions like high bloodstream pressure and otherwise encouraging healthy behaviors.

Marisol Rivera provides a glimpse at just how this may be done. After 16 years being an aide for Cooperative Homecare Associates, she was promoted to senior aide, assisting less-experienced aides within the field. She reminds them ways to use the Hoyer lift to obtain patients up out of bed and to their motorized wheel chair. She keeps an eye on hospital discharge papers to make certain patients — that the firm calls people — make their next doctor’s appointment. “Most of your time the main reason people return to hospital is they don’t return using the physician,” Ms. Rivera stated.

Ms. Rivera offers some expect the profession. Her hourly wage went from $11 to greater than $15. Still, her scenario is rare. Worker-owned Cooperative Homecare Associates only has two senior aides like her. In addition to this, she states, “I still live week by week.”

Altering the machine of lengthy-term care, to provide more responsibilities to higher-trained, greater-compensated aides won’t be easy. To begin with, there’s the awkward question from the distribution of costs and benefits. State medicaid programs will pay for most lengthy-term care, but Medicare would reap the majority of the potential financial savings from such things as less hospital readmissions.

Cash-short states have opposed efforts to boost aides’ pay. Worried that overtime rules would break their budget, some opposed the Obama administration’s effort to pay for homecare aides underneath the Fair Labor Standards Act, that they were excluded in line with the outdated argument that they are nothing more than babysitters.

There are the effective nursing unions, prepared to fight tooth and nail to help keep aides from encroaching on their own turf. Carol Raphael, former leader from the Visiting Nurse Service of recent You are able to, the biggest home health agency within the U . s . States, told Professor Osterman that whenever the association attempted to grow the function of home-care aides, the “nurses went bonkers.”

Even advocates for older Americans have lobbied against tighter rules covering such things as practicing lengthy-term care workers. Most of them also opposed covering aides underneath the Fair Labor Standards Act, as states facing overtime payments might cap the workweek for aides at 40 hrs. If your relative were taking care of your government stated that they perform for just 40 hrs, how does one have more hrs should you needed them?

Still, overhauling lengthy-term care appears within achieve. Penalties for excessive readmissions happen to be encouraging hospitals to re-think the function of home-care aides. And Obamacare is altering the healthcare industry with techniques that will support a much better-trained, better-compensated home-care work pressure, pushing providers to handle the general health of patients instead of offer health services for a small fee.

“There is really a bulb that is kind of sounding,Inches Ms. Powell stated. “Shouldn’t we learn how to leverage the work pressure and purchase the work pressure to lessen hospitalization, to lessen E.R. visits, to handle chronic illnesses which are so costly?”

This really is encouraging the development of health teams, by which lengthy-term-care aides — who’re less expensive than doctors or nurses — will have a bigger role in managing patients’ well-being.

You may consider it when it comes to census. By 2040, you will see greater than 50 million disabled individuals the U . s . States requiring some type of lengthy-term care, 12 million greater than today. Most is going to be looked after by family people, however the interest in care workers will explode.

It seems sensible of these workers to become better trained and empowered to provide better care. If there is nothing completed to improve the caliber of their jobs, most go unfilled — losing your competition for workers with McDonald’s.

Within the finish, the problem is not only who’ll take care of you when you’re old and frail. The broader concern is what American society may be like then. Because fundamental essentials jobs of America’s future. And America will appear far better whether they can sustain a middle-class.