By Lee Buchsbaum
It wasn’t long ago that the biggest problem the coal industry faced was a lack of available labor. From 2004 through 2008, as markets expanded and operators rushed in to fill them, the industry quickly soaked up as many experienced, available workers as possible. More than one coal executive was “kept up at night” fearing the critical labor shortages would hold back productivity, push up wages, and retard growth.
After the tough markets of the 1990s and early 2000s, the coal industry had lost a generation of young miners, especially in the Illinois Basin and the East. Worse, community colleges, vocational schools and universities nationwide cut back miner training programs as declining enrollments combined with a fall off in private sector donations and federal, state and local grants dried up.
With boom times back in 2007 and 2008, there simply weren’t enough human resources to draw from. Miners enjoyed lucrative signing bonuses only to be lured to another operation with a larger set of incentives. Soon, experienced miners became as sought after as good left-handed relief pitching, and in quite a few coalfields the first reserves exhausted were all human.
Quickly, those candle-burning executives nationwide began to help initiate solutions to their real and projected labor shortages. The State of Illinois, which has a variety of government run programs to reinvigorate coal mining, began funding new miner education courses and resuscitating old ones. Assisted by Cline Resources, the new White Oak Energy and other companies, Rend Lake College (RLC) in downstate Ina, Ill., has once again become one of the best-equipped miner training schools in the region.
Likewise, in the coalfields near Madisonville, Ky., Kenny Allen and other dedicated mining professionals and executives helped garner support and funding for the rebirth of western Kentucky’s miner education programs. Today Madisonville Community College (MCC), as a part of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System, is becoming the school of choice for young miners seeking jobs in the area’s expanding mines, and a regional hub for annual refresher courses as well.
In the East in the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College (SWVCTC) has also seen a resurgence of interest in miner education as a way to stabilize the workforce ranks and bring new minds into the industry. The Logan, W.Va., school has worked with almost 10,000 students since it opened in 2006.
While refresher and new miner training courses make up the majority of the state and federal funded programs, increasingly popular curricula are being developed and taught to mining executives and various levels of management as well. The Barnes Learning Group out of Charleston, W.Va., specializes in management training, particularly in helping train new management chosen from within the “field” and plucked from the hourly workforce.
As the coal industry faces new challenges, how it attracts, trains and retains new employees, instills within them a safety culture, and prepares them for the evolving 21st century cross-cut, highwall, or longwall may prove one of the keys to the industry’s future.
Rend Lake College’s Underground Coal Miner Training Program Continues to Expand
As Illinois’ mining industry has begun to rebound after decades of contraction, miner shortages have become acute and are only projected to get worse. The state, aware of the looming shortage, began in the last decade to sprinkle several colleges with a variety of funding opportunities, several matched by industry, to prepare the next generation of miners.
Once one of the premier training programs in the Midwest, in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were hundreds of students and 17 mining instructors at Rend Lake. But the phasing in of the Clean Air Acts caused all of the mines in the college’s district to close throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, demand for training virtually evaporated.
But in the last few years Rend Lake has come full circle due to the expansion of Cline Resources, Peabody Energy, Alliance Resource LP, Knight Hawk Coal and other companies in the region. In August 2009, RLC celebrated the opening of its new 20,000 square foot Coal Miner Training Facility funded through a $1.7 million U.S. Department of Labor grant and a $1.07 million Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DECO) Office of Coal Development grant. RLC received another Department of Labor grant to acquire additional equipment, recruit students and build a $285,000 Fire Training Facility. The “Sago Grant” will help train and familiarize mine rescue teams and fire-fighting brigades with real life situations.
In September, Joy Mining Machinery donated a 14 CM continuous miner unit valued at more than $1 million. “We are going to utilize it for machine operations,” said RLC Mining Instructor Dave Columbo. “We’ll also be using it as a maintenance tool to teach students how to service the machine, how to repair it and how it actually functions.” Billy Kirkpatrick, Joy’s Mining Machinery sales manager for Midwest Americas, was instrumental in helping secure the donation to the college. Recognizing that training is vital to the success of any coal miner and mining company, Joy hopes that the donation will help prepare tomorrow’s workforce for the underground skills they will need on the job.
In October, RLC’s board of trustees approved a bid for a power center in the coal mining training center which will allow mining students and instructors to use, troubleshoot and diagnose mining equipment as part of their training. “It’s basically the heart of any mining program,” said Terry Wilkerson, division chair of applied science. “It is the cornerpiece to our department.”
With retraining and new miner classes under way, RLC has also hosted seven rescue teams through November with four more going through advanced smoke training incorporating fire training and rescue operations. “This December also marks a year since Cline Resources and M Class Mining presented RLC with a $100,000 gift that has helped us move forward aggressively with our program here,” said Columbo. “We work with Cline often and are helping to train the people who will help that company grow and thrive throughout the next 25 years. It’s exciting to know your students are going to become part of a first class company using brand new equipment while practicing safe, state-of-the-art longwall and CM mining techniques.”
Kentucky Community & Technical College System Trains Western Kentucky’s Miners
Like Illinois, as western Kentucky’s mines closed, the workforce left and took much of the region’s mining expertise with them. As a new generation of producers, led by Armstrong Coal, has come back to the area, they are hoping to employ a new generation of digitally trained miners prepared to enter what has become a more sophisticated coal industry.
To better train them, industry and community leaders helped establish the Kentucky Community & Technical College System and updated the Madisonville Community College’s miner training programs. The Madisonville facility began offering classes in 1968 under the control of the University of Kentucky but has since become part of this new college system. Since then, MCC “has been very proactive in establishing new curriculums focused on training a workforce for the future. The staff there, from the president on down, has set a series of aggressive goals, and in a short space of time, has achieved most of them,” said Kenny Allen, vice president, Armstrong Coal, and a long time fixture in western Kentucky’s mining community. As a member of the KCTCS Industrial Advisory Committee, Allen was part of a group that helped steer government and industry funding to the nascent program, bring in qualified instructors from throughout the coal sector, and develop a curricula. “We’ve been working on this since the day it was conceived,” said Allen.
MCC has a large simulator filled facility on campus that has recently reopened. “Now with the upsurge, expectation training is reviving the facility. We’re now doing all sorts of training exercises that you couldn’t feasibly do in a real coal mine,” said Danny Knott, director of mine rescue training, MCC.
As the newest big kid on the block, Armstrong Coal has wanted to “raise the bar” on the inexperienced miners the company hires by requiring them to have a minimum of a high school education or its equivalent. “We’re hoping that our employees can begin with that base, and then later, those who wish can go through KCTCS’s program and go on and get an associates degree in mining, electrical systems, or a variety of skilled vocational degrees,” said Allen.
This new community of learners has “been very helpful to all the companies in the region,” said Allen. By instilling good initial training KCTCS has given these new miners “the tools they need to be able to go underground. Having them so well trained is a big plus for us, and no doubt the students too. We’ve already hired several who have been through the mining courses and we’re very pleased with the results,” said Allen.
KTCTS Helps Create a Safety Culture for Today’s and Tomorrow’s Miners
Pat Gomez, a miner at Advent Coal’s Onton No. 9 mine, initially trained at the Kentucky Coal Academy, but received additional safety and rescue training through MCC. “We have a simulated mine, rescue station, and the facilities for simulated fire training as well. Using tubs, we are able to practice on putting out real diesel fuel fires as well as training for heavy smoke underground,” said Gomez. Thermal imaging and camera training is another helpful skill taught at MCC. “In a smoke-filled situation if someone was laying by a rib, I couldn’t see them. But a thermal imaging camera will help us see through the smoke, maybe save that person’s life,” said Gomez.
At the Illinois Mining Institute Conference at Rend Lake College in August, Gomez took the Best Benchman prize in a mine rescue contest, while his team, a composite from several regional mines including Onton No. 9, won a combination trophy for their work in the field. He credits the training he received at MCC as instrumental in winning the award and preparing for the day when those skills may be useful in a real emergency. “Preparedness is key. Every day we go through a routine of checking all 18 of our breathing machines to make sure they all function so that if we get called in an hour or a week, they’ll be ready,” said Gomez. Though he’s not had to employ the rescue and disaster training in a real world situation, what he’s learned at MCC has helped “make him a safer, better coal miner.”
Danny Knott, who started mining in 1975 for Island Creek Coal, has more than 34 years of real world experience. He specializes in safety training, refresher courses and educating students about changing state and federal regulations. “Every year we cover state law, MSHA law, health, dust and noise issues, rescue procedures, barricading techniques, ventilation, and other topics that help refresh the miner on all that they may encounter while on shift,” said Knott. One of the newest lessons is on the usage and deployment of underground rescue chambers.
Recently, when Advent brought its people to MCC for training, it also brought a rented Strata rescue chamber for training purposes. “It was real hands on. We did some firefighting training, but mostly we were able to learn to work with, deploy, crawl into and spend time in a real rescue chamber,” said Gomez. “It’s so important for a miner to be able to get a feel for things hands on, especially if they are going to be using that item in a dark, smoke filled environment.” MCC will have its own rescue chamber in the first part of 2010 and plans to conduct a variety of training exercises including additional smoke, fire and rescue simulations.
Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College
Despite the assault on Central Appalachia’s coal industry, young men and young women continue to attend and graduate from Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College’s mining academy. Funded in part by a grant from the Department of Labor in conjunction with West Virginia University, the college’s program has become something of a partnership between the two schools. SWVCTC offers several degree programs, including a 65-hour A.A.S. in Mine Management. Carl E. Baisden, a 35-year industry veteran heads the school, and as director of mine safety and energy technology, oversees training operations in SWVCTC’s unique Underground Mine Simulation Training Facility.
The school’s underground training center was formerly a cold storage warehouse, and the walls of the five-story, 55,000 square foot training center are 18- to 24-in. thick. SWVCTC’s training complex is divided into three simulated mines each with several simulated coal seams ranging in width from 33-in. to 12-ft. Upon arrival, mining students head to their dressing area, just like in an actual mine, acting like a working crew. There they receive their tasks and assignments for the day, get the supplies they need from the simulated warehouse, and go off to work. There are “multiple labs where the apprentice students will complete and develop skills and tasks that an entry level coal miner would probably do within the first two years: everything from ventilation to gas testing, building permanent ventilation stoppings and seals, roof support, proper shoveling techniques, and quite a bit of ergonomics,” said Baisden.
In addition to teaching process improvement, efficiencies, and safety as a way of life, SWVCTC also has a tabletop mine where students build their own mines. “As a team they have to build their own efficient, legal operation that is environmentally friendly and cost effective. By doing this, they learn what an employee costs, as well as what they can do to make their employees more efficient,” said Baisden.
Though only in existence for a little more than three years, 10,000 students have gone through one facet or another of SWVCTC’s training programs and several hundred students attend per month. The academy also has 30 students going through mine management training and 66 students studying emergency training, fire and rescue, and has a staff of 26 adjunct and full time instructors. Though many students attend refresher courses or take classes as raw recruits, the college also has one of the only two-year Mine Management degree programs in Appalachia. “It’s designed to take the certified miner to the next level through educational training as well as experience,” said Baisden.
In 2010, SWVCTC will begin work on a pilot project to expand Logan’s airport which is located on reclaimed surface mine lands. “Our students are going to extend the runway and in the process, mine the incidental coal there—which we estimate to be several thousand tons. We will follow all of the evolving OSM and MSHA surface mining rules and regulations in addition to being under FAA authority. It’s definitely a unique project. Surveying students from the college will do all site work, and mine management students will help with supervisory roles,” said Baisden.
SWVCTC is also the home of Task Force One, a state funded mobile, rapid response group that is designed to enhance, assist, and support mine rescue teams in actual emergencies. Task Force One sports two large heavy rescue trucks with oxygen and air generation systems, air support equipment, heavy rescue pneumatic tools, several borehole cameras capable of 2,000-ft drops, and dive equipment. “We operate a mobile command unit with multiple satellite systems and redundant radio communications, mapping and management computer workstations as well as software to assist with incident command decisions. We would also deploy fire suppression and seismic monitoring equipment utilized in conjunction with our GPS locating technology. All in all our equipment is mobile and our specially trained responders could be delivered to anywhere a miner is trapped,” said Baisden.
From Hourly to Salaried: Helping Those Who Transition Upward, Transition Inward
While most state programs focus on hourly employees, others, like the privately funded Barnes Learning Group work more closely with management and with those making the transition from hourly to salaried. “Our coursework is complementary as it takes some of that technical information and applies it to real world human conditions. Where we think we can be of service is within operations, safety, controlling costs, and enhancing productivity,” said trainer Jeff Barnes. “Our program is designed to help teach to new management those things that leaders do that enable them to lead. We help to aim, energize and develop people in the process.”
Though Barnes has enjoyed a second career in a training roll, prior to 1993, he spent decades working for CONSOL Energy and Arch Coal in various coalfields throughout the country. While he at times had operational duties, with a master’s degree in industrial relations from West Virginia University, Barnes found his niche within human resources and safety training.
Often times in the field, management will take one of their best miner operators or roofbolters and ask them to become a manager even with no proven management skills. “We work closely with those guys so that we can help them develop their managing skills,” said Barnes. In the space of two to three days, the Learning Group helps each new manager realize the importance of standards in practice and behavior, develop project planning and performance monitoring, teach how to deal with difficult people in various situations, how to lead, and how to use language that speaks to being a manager. “We spend a lot of time talking about what is supervision, management, what are the legalities of supervision, and how to gain employee respect, especially after field promotions,” said Barnes.
A unique concept Barnes focuses on is working with management to foster the institutional knowledge and culture of their mines. When a mine opens up or a company builds out, facilities don’t necessarily come together as a cultural blank slate. A small group of individuals can influence a particular operation’s short or long-term successes, especially out of the gate.
“You’re going to get a work place culture by design or default. Management needs to recognize that one way or another it’s going to happen. The question is: are you going to manage this process or just let it happen?” said Barnes. Doing nothing, he warns, risks the development of an adversarial culture in the absence of leadership. The paradigm of management, while perhaps an intangible thing, is nonetheless vital to any organization, especially within a coal mine, a thousand feet underground and the size of a small city with millions of moving parts and hundreds of lives in the balance.
Buchsbaum is a Denver-based freelance writer and photographer specializing in industrial subjects. He can be reached through his Web site at www.lmbphotography.com or by phone at 303-746-8172.