In the 20th century, coal mining was the primary industry in many United States regions. Coal mining positions require physical stamina and a desire to work hard for a living. Most coal mining jobs require little more than a high school diploma and on-the-job training. While workers can earn a reasonable coal miner hourly wage, their job opportunities are dwindling.
About Coal Mining
The coal industry operates mines in several U.S. states, including Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Numerous industries use coal to manufacture steel, plastics and electricity.
Some coal deposits lie deep underground. Underground mining requires miners to construct intricate tunnels to reach coal deposits. Miners use chainsaws and drills to puncture holes in the layers of coal. They place explosives in the holes to blast the coal from the deposit. After the dust settles, miners load the coal into carts, which travel through the tunnels to the surface.
Surface miners extract coal by removing layers of soil, a method often called “strip mining.” Some strip mining operations produce holes hundreds of feet deep that resemble canyons. Miners use bulldozers and explosives to strip away layer after layer of soil and rock. Once they reach a layer of coal, they remove it using extractors that grind the coal into small chunks, which can easily load onto trucks.
Types of Mining Jobs
The term “miner” can apply to dozens of positions within the coal mining industry. Mining operations require an army of engineers, mechanics, carpenters and equipment cleaners. Some miners operate heavy equipment such as bulldozers, grinders, crushers, cranes and extractors. Other miners drive trucks, operate drills, set explosives, drive shuttles or service machinery.
Coal Miner Education Requirements
The coal mining industry hires laborers and helpers who have a high school education. Some workers are not high school graduates. Most laborers and helpers receive on the job training.
Operations managers typically have at least an associate’s degree. In mining regions, some community colleges and technical schools offer courses, associate’s degree programs or certificate programs in mine studies.
Mining engineers must have at least a bachelor’s degree, typically in geological engineering or mining engineering.
Technological advancements have made mining equipment increasingly complex, so many miners receiving continuing training.
Coal Mining Dangers
Coal mining is risky business. Virtually every aspect of a mining operation puts workers in danger of serious injury or death. Miners constantly breathe soil and coal dust, which can lead to respiratory disorders such as pneumoconiosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Pneumoconiosis, also called "black lung", is an often fatal lung disease that causes coughing, inflammation and scarring in the lung. The constant loud noise of heavy equipment can lead to hearing loss and flying debris from explosive blasts can maim or kill a miner.
Coal Miner Salary
According to the BLS, production and nonsupervisory miners earned a median wage of around $29 per hour in 2018. The median wage represents the center of the coal miner pay scale. First-line supervisors, installers and mechanics make around $41 per hour, while machine operators take home about $24 per hour. In 2017, coal mining engineers earned a median salary of around $84,000.
According to a 2017 New York Times report, in recent years the disparity between executive pay and coal miners’ pay has drastically increased. In 2016, executives earned an average annual salary of around $200,000, compared to $125,000 in 2004 – a 60 percent increase. Meanwhile, mining jobs pay rates for truck drivers rose just 15 percent during the same period.
Coal Miner Unions
In past decades, more the 40 percent of coal miners belonged to unions. According to the BLS, in 2016 less than 3 percent of coal miners were members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the leading mining union. According to the UMWA, their members earn slightly more than non-union coal miners – about $1,400 per year.
Coal Miner Job Outlook
The coal mining industry has been in decline for several years. The industry employed around 90,000 workers in 2012, but just 52,000 in 2018.