Under Trump, coal communities are stuck between a rock and a hard place

If Trump wants to help coal communities recover, feeding them false hope about coal’s revival isn’t the answer.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Blair Zimmerman, Pennsylvania’s Greene County Commissioner, knows coal. As a mine worker for 40 years and then a politician in southwestern Pennsylvania, he knows how important coal is to both the identity and economic stability of his community. He’s even called the White House a few times since President Donald Trump took office, asking the president — who ran on a platform of supporting coal miners that he argued had been forgotten by Washington — to renew health insurance for thousands of retired coal miners.

But he doesn’t think that anything Trump does will bring coal jobs back to levels seen in the industry’s heyday.

“The coal industry is going to be around for years, but to bring it back — that’s not going to happen. [Utilities] are not going to invest in fossil-fueled power plants,” Zimmerman said. When he talked about the promises Trump made to places like Greene County, a community of just over 36,000 situated on the state’s southwest border, Zimmerman laughed, raising his voice a little.

“He doesn’t have a plan. That was all political B.S.,” Zimmerman said. “He said it just to get elected.”

And it worked, because of places like Greene County — in November, Trump overwhelmingly carried the county’s vote, beating Hillary Clinton by 40 points.

One hundred days into his presidency, however, Trump’s actions to help coal communities have been limited to cutting environmental regulations that experts say will do little to help bring mining jobs back.

Meanwhile, Trump’s skinny budget, released in March, would cut funding to seven of the 12 federal programs aimed at revitalizing struggling coal communities. Since 2015, these programs have functioned together under the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, Initiative. These Obama-era programs include things like workforce training, to help unemployed coal miners obtain necessary skills for finding new jobs, and economic development, to help new businesses move into these communities. According to a new Center for American Progress analysis, Trump’s proposed budget would cut at least $1.13 billion from these programs. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.

“A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners.”

“Having the administration fund programs that direct money into economic development in the coalfields is really the only way to truly help people right now that are living and working in these communities,” Veronica Coptis, a lifelong Greene County resident and executive director of Coalfield Justice, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners, but more concerned with ensuring that coal companies continue to have more control.”

In Greene County, where the unemployment rate is currently 6.7 percent (about two percent higher than the national average), POWER Initiative funds have been hugely useful for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, a body that oversees programs aimed at helping job seekers find employment and learn skills in southwest Pennsylvania.

Ami Gatts, who has worked for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board for 25 years, rising to the position of director two and a half years ago, said that the board has received over $1.5 million in POWER Initiative funds, which has paid for things like supportive services to help unemployed workers get computers or transportation for school, or training seminars aimed at helping out-of-work miners obtain new skills. Through POWER Initiative funding, for instance, the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board can reimburse companies up to $8,000 taking a chance on an untrained worker. The employee gets a full salary, while the company is taking less of a financial risk on its new hire.

“When you cut those funds, we don’t have the money to train people to make a skilled workforce,” Gatts said. “It’s going to affect our employers, and it’s going to affect the people who need those skills. It’s very detrimental.”

Beyond cutting programs, however, Gatts said that Trump’s rhetoric about coal jobs coming back has a paralyzing impact on coal communities, where many workers would rather go back to familiar jobs than embark than learn a new trade or skills. Many unemployed coal workers have been hesitant to take advantage of the workforce training services provided to the community — because they are convinced that the coal industry, with Trump’s help, will rebound to its former glory.

“Every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

“Every time they put out hope, it stymies people. They just stop and they don’t move forward,” Gatts said. “Change is not something people welcome, and every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

The story of the fall of the coal industry has been one of a steady, decades-long decline, with the number of coal mining jobs falling from 177,500 in 1985 to just over 50,000 today. As both a candidate and as president, Trump has made a great many promises to coal communities devastated by a rise in automation and competition from natural gas and renewable energy. He has promised to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-administration’s signature domestic climate regulation aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. He has pledged to repeal environmental regulations aimed at protecting streams from mining pollution, and has promised to do away with other regulatory burdens that he argues have been killing the coal industry.

But while these moves may boost coal production slightly — and line the pockets of coal executives in the process — they will do little to stem the production of cheap natural gas or slow the automation of the coal industry. Utilities have already said that Trump’s recent actions have not changed their outlook on coal as an energy source, nor have the actions caused utility executives to reconsider previously scheduled coal plant closures. In short, Trump’s regulatory assault will do little to bring back coal jobs to the regions where he’s promised relief.

Mining jobs paid well — an average of $60,000 a year for people just starting in the industry. And finding unemployed miners jobs that pay similar wages is not easy — especially when workers lack particular skills that employers are looking for. Many unemployed miners, as well as potential employers, are either unwilling or unable to take on the financial burden of paying for a particular kind of skill training, which is why POWER Initiative funds have been so crucial for entities like the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board in trying to address the gap between unemployed workers and potential employers.

“In order to get the skills, you need to have money to pay for the training,” Gatts said. “If you take that away from us, you’re not going to be offering our employers any trained workers.”

Both Gatts and Commissioner Zimmerman note, however, that POWER Initiative funds can only go so far — and that it means little to the community to have a trained workforce without opportunities for employment within the community.

“The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

“We have to bring in other industries, and support the guys that are here now in the coal industry,” Zimmerman said. “The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

Both Zimmerman and Gatts are looking to the technology sector as a potential new industry for Greene County — they argue that since tech work really only requires an internet connection, companies could find lots of potential workers in economically-depressed coal communities, as long as those communities have access to education and training. It’s a strategy that is similar in many ways to candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposed plan for revitalizing coal communities, which involved federal support for local education and training programs as well as major investment in expanding broadband access for rural communities.

Since 2015, Greene County has been partnering with a nonprofit called Mined Minds, which was started by tech consultant Amanda Laucher, who was born in Greene County but moved to Chicago to work in tech. Together with her partner Jonathan Graham, Minded Minds has begun offering coding bootcamps to teach software development and tech skills to unemployed miners and others in Greene County and the surrounding area.

“We strongly believe that there is talent in these areas,” Graham told ThinkProgress. And he said the program is mutually beneficial. “The tech industry is continuing to grow and getting a talented workforce is difficult and expensive.”

Graham and Laucher also offer their students both pre-apprenticeships — a combination of real world tech work and continuing workshops — as well as full apprenticeships. Mined Minds also works with companies from Silicon Valley to New York to help place graduates of the programs in tech jobs that can be done remotely, so that graduates don’t have to leave their homes, once they have completed the bootcamp and apprenticeships.

The Mined Minds programs, thus far, are self-funded, but POWER Initiative Grants have helped the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board pay for some of the associated training costs for Greene County residents. Mined Minds also recently applied for their own POWER Initiative funds, with the hopes of expanding their boot camps and reaching more residents in southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“I think as a model, it makes sense. Having the support of grants means that we’re not taking all the risk ourselves in trying to bring more industry into an area,” Graham said.

He said that if the Trump administration were to cut POWER Initiative funding, it would slow — but not completely derail — their ability to expand their training programs.

“Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

But for Gatts, who has worked in economic development in this community for over a decade, losing federal funding would be a blow.

“I do think these programs are very necessary,” she said. “Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”