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.