Why are Coal Industry Contract Workers Undercounted in Employment Data?
By T.L. Headley, American Coal Council
How many people work in the U.S. coal sector? It depends on who you ask. For example, according to 2019 data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are 53,000 people working in coal mining. These are direct employees actively involved in the daily production of coal. The media often reports this BLS jobs number.
Meanwhile, the National Mining Association (NMA), using Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) data, reports 55,500 in coal mining and 27,300 contractors for a total of 82,800 coal industry employees. This is generally in line with the 2018 U.S. Energy and Employment Report (USEER) by the National Association of State Energy Officials and the Energy Futures Initiative, which counts a total of 74,180 including coal mining and direct support workers (see Table 1).
However, in a much broader assessment of the economic and jobs contributions of mining, NMA reports total coal employment at 419,531 jobs including direct, indirect and induced. This total includes the operations of the mines, support activities and transportation of coal produced.
At the state level, the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training (WVOMHST) reports 15,440 direct coal mining jobs and 37,463 contractors, for a total of 52,141 coal industry jobs. More contractors are reported in West Virginia by WVOMHST than are listed by MSHA for contractors in the entire country. MSHA reports only 5,400 contractor coal jobs in West Virginia. This seems low given the tonnage produced and state statistics that show there are 1,560 contractor companies providing services to the industry. By comparison, Pennsylvania reports 5,966 direct mining jobs and just 5,729 support jobs. Kentucky reports 8,700 direct mining jobs and just 6,104 support and contractor jobs. Note that Pennsylvania and Kentucky use MSHA data, rather than data collected or compiled by the state itself as West Virginia does.
How should we think about these various data points on coal jobs?
As far as contractor jobs, many companies now provide services to the coal industry that coal producers historically provided through direct employment. These contractor jobs are absolutely dependent on the existence of the local coal mining operations so it is important that they be included.
Jobs at coal-fueled power plants are another important component, accounting for 92,843 jobs alone, according to the USEER (see Table 1).
Jobs related to coal transportation comprise 7.7 percent of all the commodities transported in the U.S. by any form of transport. Since significant numbers of jobs are tied to the 21.7 percent of coal barge traffic, and the 31.4 percent of railroad coal traffic, estimates for these jobs should also be added.
Digging deeper, BLS provides additional perspective on mining related employment. As shown in the BLS Table B-1, there are 356,900 jobs in support activities for mining. While there is no breakout of the number of those jobs associated with coal, according to Dr. Roger Bezdek, an economic and energy authority who has extensively researched coal employment, a good estimate can be derived by applying the ratio of direct coal employment versus other mining employment to the total number of support jobs.
Direct coal jobs at 53,000 are 34 percent of the total of 153,900 for coal and non-metallic mineral mining and quarrying. Applying that to the total number of mining support jobs of 356,900 (which BLS confirmed do not include oil and gas) results in 122,909 coal support jobs. Together with the 53,000 direct mining jobs, this totals 175,909 – using only these “Coal mining” and “Support activities for mining” categories. Adding the 92,843 power plant jobs, barge transportation jobs estimated at up to 10,95411 and rail transportation jobs estimated at up to 28,97412 (included in their own BLS categories) provides an estimate of 308,630 coal-dependent jobs.
Other coal-dependent jobs are distributed through other BLS classifications, such as engineering and construction among others, and are not included in this estimated total. Accounting for them would support NMA’s total calculation of 419,000 jobs, as that number includes the “induced” jobs supported by the mining of coal. “Induced” employment essentially means jobs that are supported or created by the coal industry’s economic impact on the broad economy, such as those in restaurants, stores and other places that are frequented by these coal-related employees and their families in their local communities.
The BLS and MSHA data are derived from mining company reports using standardized job classifications based on the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) code, specifically code #2121 for coal mining. This includes jobs that “primarily engage in mining, mine site development, and beneficiating (i.e., preparing) metallic minerals and nonmetallic minerals, including coal. The term ‘mining’ is used in the broad sense to include extraction, quarrying, and beneficiating (e.g., crushing, screening, washing, sizing, concentrating, and flotation), customarily done at the mine site.”
Additional jobs, such as trucking, vendors and other categories listed above are not included in that code but instead largely fall into code #2131 and are reported in the “Support activities for mining” category listed in BLS Table B-1. Still others don’t fit into these categories at all and are not even counted as support jobs, such as some at Marshall Miller & Associates (MM&A), a Bluefield, Virginia-based engineering firm, for example.
“More than 50 of our employees are directly dependent upon the coal industry for employment,” said Scott Keim, president of MM&A. “This includes mining engineers, civil engineers, geologists, environmental scientists, engineering technicians, accountants and technical support staff. Many of these staff members have been employed by MM&A for over 25 years.”
Yet these jobs are never included in the count of “coal jobs”. Keim said he thinks they definitely should be because “they would likely all lose their jobs if the coal industry were to shut down.”
The employees of MM&A are listed by the BLS under the category of “Heavy and Civil Engineering” which has more than one million total jobs nationwide. How many more engineering companies provide full-time support to the coal industry?
It is important to demonstrate, as this analysis has, that coal sector employment must be considered in the full context of the approximately 400,000 jobs generated. These jobs are among the highest paid jobs available in the sector, especially in the coal-producing regions of the country. Clearly, there has been a significant undercount of coal mining and coal support jobs by federal and state sources, and reported by the media. Any policy decisions impacting the coal industry must be considered in light of these numbers rather than the fraction of the total often cited.