The number of coal mining jobs continues to decline. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, nationally there were about 90,000 coal miners in 2012, but that number has fallen to below 50,000 over the last decade. The number of miners in West Virginia has fallen from 23,000 to fewer than 12,000 during the same period.
The drop in employment is directly related to the decline in the use of coal as a domestic energy source because of carbon emissions, and that decline is expected to continue as the nation transitions to more renewable energy sources.
The often-repeated generalization about this transition is that coal miners and others who work in carbon-intensive industries can find green energy jobs in wind and solar. However, new research finds that is not happening.
Researchers at Wake Forest University, the University of Pennsylvania and the labor analytics firm Lightcast analyzed 130 million online work profiles and found the transition is almost non-existent. “Fewer than one percent of all workers who leave a dirty job* (carbon-intensive job) appear to transition to a green job.”**
In fact, in some states, over half of those workers who leave or are laid off from dirty jobs end up in other dirty jobs. Additionally, “Older workers and those without a college education appear less likely to make transitions to green jobs and are more likely to transition to other dirty jobs, or non-employment.”
On the positive side, the rate of transition from dirty to green jobs increased ten-fold from 2005 to 2021, but again, those who do successfully make the switch make up less than one percent of those leaving the carbon-intensive workforce.
The transition rate is even lower in our state. The New York Times reported that the study showed that “Less than a quarter of a percent of workers who left a fossil fuel job in West Virginia moved on to a job in renewable energy.”
Wake Forest economics professor Mark Curtis, who is one of the researchers, told the Times, “In places like Texas or in the middle of the country where there’s a lot of solar and wind, fossil fuel communities are relatively well positioned to take advantage of renewables,” he said. “Coal communities generally don’t have that, especially when you think about Appalachia.”
Lightcast reports the move to a sustainable economy is a permanent shift. The demand for green jobs in this country has risen by 50 percent just since 2019, and it is expected to continue to rise. However, the research shows that, at least so far, the idea that a laid off roof bolter can get a new job making solar panels or installing wind turbines is largely an unfulfilled promise.
*(The researchers define jobs as “dirty” if they are associated with industries and occupations very clearly related to fossil fuel extraction and fossil energy production.”)
**(The researchers define jobs that are “non-carbon intensive” as “green.”)