Retraining Coal Miners and Tobacco Farmers for the Climate Change Era – Part 2

This is the conclusion of an article by Coral Davenport of the New York Times 

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Porterfield Highway illustrates the region’s economic reality with billboards advertising high-speed broadband services, and rural aid programs to feed hungry children. In the tiny, largely boarded-up town of Sun, Va., Roger Bentley, a retired miner, recalled that more than a decade ago, Reynolds Metals Company built a factory here, lured by tax incentives to bring in non-tobacco companies. “But after the tax breaks run out,” he said, “they left.”

William M. Shobe, the director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the University of Virginia, said that as tobacco and coal decline, the best option for workers might simply be to leave.

“Retraining is fine, but without mobility, much of the value of that retraining will be lost,” he said. “You will have coal miners retrained in computer skills, but working in retail or not working at all.”

The tobacco commission did have some successes, Mr. Chafin said. The problem, he said, is that many of the college-educated workers at Northrop Grumman are not local. And the new call center jobs pay about $12 an hour — far less than a coal miner’s annual salary of $60,000 to $80,000.

“It’s hard to think of what other kind of retraining you give to coal miners,” he said. “There just isn’t enough here — and it’s dubious to say that broadband will save us.”

A 2015 study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute on the employment effects of President Obama’s climate change policies found that over all, the initiatives would cut jobs in industries like coal mining, but increase jobs in industries like wind and solar development, leading to a net gain of 24,342 jobs by 2030.

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But that number, the study showed, includes a loss of 202,238 jobs associated with coal mining and coal-fired power generation in regions where they might not be replaced by the 256,177 new jobs associated with the manufacture of energy-efficient lighting and heating and cooling systems.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Mr. Houser said. “The green shoots of diversified growth are showing up a lot more slowly than the rapid decline of coal. You’re not going to flip a switch and suddenly have a robust diversified economy in southwest Virginia.”

In Wise, Va., a few miles from Kentucky, Jack Kennedy, a circuit court official and a technophile who campaigns for the town’s economic development, is optimistic that the region could rebound as a center for technology. He is working to bring in companies that specialize in cybersecurity and drone technology. At least one firm, he said, has already flown a cargo drone from the town’s Lonesome Pine Airport.

“This is the perfect place for industries like drones and cybersecurity, because we’re so remote,” Mr. Kennedy said. “The drone industry is new. We can grow with it.”

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OptaFuel lab. Photo by Mike Belleme

Mr. Kennedy also pointed to OptaFuel, a lab that is researching and developing biofuels made from sawdust. The company started the lab in Wise because of tax breaks offered by the tobacco commission — and it brought highly educated employees like Vrusank Patil, an engineer who grew up in India, and Clint Ivey, a production manager who grew up in Georgia.

“If it wasn’t for the tobacco commission,” Mr. Ivey said, “we wouldn’t be here.”

About half of the team of 35 chemists, many dressed in skinny jeans and lab coats, are recent graduates of the University of Virginia’s small campus in Wise, he said. OptaFuel also employs a few former coal miners as security guards.

But, he conceded, “for the research jobs, you need a bachelor’s degree” — something most former coal miners do not have.

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