As a teenager, Josh McNett knew he didn’t want to pursue a higher education.
“I didn’t mind school, but I figured if I went to college I was going to blow it away partying,” says McNett, 28, with a laugh. “When I was younger, I didn’t think it would be a good fit for me.”
At the suggestion of his father, the Greene County native started coal mining straight out of high school. Over the next nine years, he worked his way up to being a foreman at Consol Energy’s Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, PA.
But everything changed last March when he lost his job.
“I didn’t really have any expectation of going anywhere else,” says McNett. “But when everything started to decline and layoffs started happening, that’s when I became nervous because I didn’t have anything to fall back on.”
While unemployed, he came upon an article on Facebook about coal miners training to become tech professionals. One of the organizations mentioned, Mined Minds, happened to teach coding courses in the region. McNett signed up for one of their workshops last summer and graduated the following November.
Now he works for Mined Minds as an assistant instructor and software developer.
McNett’s story may seem unique, but he actually represents a growing trend in the region and throughout the country where programs are using professional development to empower communities affected by the downturn in the coal industry. The shift especially applies to populations around Southwestern Pennsylvania who, both directly and indirectly, depend on coal mining for jobs.
Over the past several years, a number of factors—the most significant being the rise of the natural gas industry and renewables like solar and wind power—have led to a drop in coal production and consumption. Last November, a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that, between 2008 and 2015, the country had lost more than 21,000 coal jobs. The average number of those still employed by the coal industry is the lowest on record since the EIA began collecting data in 1978.
Despite promises made by the Trump administration to revive coal, new developments indicate that the industry will only wither further after decades of decline. Last February, owners of the country’s largest coal-fired facilities—the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona and the Killen and Stuart power plants in Ohio—announced plans to shut them down, in effect eliminating hundreds of jobs.
As for the Pittsburgh region, Consol temporarily laid off 200 miners at the Bailey Mine where McNett once worked. Earlier this year, the company also announced out plans to sell or spin out their remaining coal assets as they continued their transformation into a natural gas company.
As a result, groups have stepped in to provide support to mining communities desperate for help. And it seems to be working.
Turning miners into programmers
Mined Minds founder Amanda Laucher saw how dire the coal situation was when she found out her brother, who worked as a miner at the Enlow Fork Mine in Greene County, might lose his job. She suggested he go into software development like her and her husband, Mined Minds co-founder Jonathan Graham.
“It seems like it’s a pretty stable career,” she said in an interview last February. “It’s what we’ve been doing and it’s been good to us.”
Though the career path might seem out of sync with coal miners, experts believe otherwise. A recent article in Wired declared coding as the next blue-collar job, and redefined tech as less of an unattainable world inhabited by Mark Zuckerberg-like geniuses and more of an industry where skilled, entry-level workers could find stable, full-time jobs with decent wages and benefits.
It goes on to say that the need for more tech professionals would also increase as the field expanded by 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, a rate “faster than most other occupations.”
There are those hoping to fill that need with out-of-work coal miners. Besides Mined Minds, the software development startup BitSource in Kentucky, another state where the coal industry has suffered major losses, also trains former miners to code.
But for people like Laucher’s brother, who has a wife and three children to support, money and time were an issue. A four-year degree and college debt were not an option.
So Mined Minds decided to make courses flexible, accessible and affordable. Various financial resources allow students to attend at no cost. McNett was able to take his workshop for free thanks to CareerLink, which offers assistance to job seekers, and a state grant.
“It paid everything for the course,” says McNett.
He adds that Mined Minds students also work with mentors from companies around Pittsburgh who then help them find jobs after they graduate.
But coding isn’t the only field attracting area coal miners. For some, entrepreneurship is the way to go.
Nice work if you can make it
Michael Wholihan serves as the lead instructor and recruiter for Planning for Profits and Mining Your Business. Created by the University of Pittsburgh’s Small Business Development Center, and funded by grants from the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Small Business Administration, both programs cater to anyone affected by the gas and coal industries in Allegheny, Washington and Greene County.
Planning for Profits counsels established small business owners whose livelihoods have been affected in some way by the downfall of coal. Mining Your Business trains displaced energy workers trying to start a new business.
Interest in the programs showed Wholihan that there’s a demand for the services he and his colleagues provide.
“Within less than a month, I almost filled both classes,” he says, adding that both accepted 25 people. “So there’s obviously a need for the consulting and training.”
The classes come at no cost and are scheduled at just two hours every other week to accommodate students with families and businesses. Wholihan emphasizes that the curriculum also offers a nonacademic approach that appeals to the students they’re trying to attract.
“It’s very comprehensive, but it’s customizable for those business owners where they can take the skills and implement them immediately,” says Wholihan.
These efforts aren’t limited to Pitt. Last year, the nonprofit Catalyst Connection received funding toward training unemployed coal miners to become entrepreneurs or find careers in advanced manufacturing.
The comeback kid?
Even as experts dismiss claims that the Trump administration will fail to boost coal, some are more optimistic. The new president also appears determined to fulfill what was one of his major campaign focuses, including his recent move to lift the federal coal ban.
“We have worked with several people who say coal is going to come back,” says Laucher. “It goes in cycles and this is just another cycle.”
She and Wholihan have also seen laid-off coal workers return to their jobs when mining resumes.
“I’ve talked to people who initially showed some interest, but they couldn’t commit to the program because they’re starting to get callbacks already,” says Wholihan. He adds that if coal does return, training programs at least give them another option.
However, Laucher says the majority of people she speaks to see coal as an industry “that’s on the way out,” a consensus shared by McNett, who believes that bringing coal back to its glory days would prove difficult.
“Could it come back? Possibly,” he says, explaining that coal’s rebound would depend on it becoming the cheapest option after “gas prices skyrocket or oil prices go up.”
But he adds, “It could probably disappear just as fast as it did the first time.”
Even though there are signs of life, including the opening of a new mine in Somerset County that would provide 70 jobs, many work training program participants would rather continue on their new career paths.
Wholihan recalls one person he worked with who did just that.
“He got a callback to come back to work but he said he was in a position where he wanted to change industries and start another business on his own,” he says.
While McNett recognizes the appeal of returning to the mines, he feels the field has become too unstable and that there’s no guarantee jobs will last. He also sees the rotating shifts, long hours and “all the health things” as deterrents.
“In all honesty, it would take a lot of money to get me to go back to the coal mine,” he says. “[Coding] is so much more flexible and easier on the body.”
Unlike his previous job, which required him to stay in Greene County, coding also allows him to seek opportunities elsewhere. He plans to work with Mined Minds over the next couple of years and then decide what to do next.
“I might want to move to another place,” he says. “California sounds nice. There’s great weather and I know there are a lot of jobs out there.”