Home / Commentary / EDITORIAL: Don’t prop up coal mining. Instead, retrain workers for solar industry

EDITORIAL: Don’t prop up coal mining. Instead, retrain workers for solar industry

Joshua Pearce is an academic engineer at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan.

Joshua Pearce is an academic engineer at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan.

The Trump administration has announced new pollution rules meant to keep existing coal power plants operating and save American coal-mining jobs.

This comes even as U.S. coal-power plants’ profits have plummeted, and one big coal company after another has filed for bankruptcy.

The main reason coal is in decline is competition from less expensive natural gas and renewable sources of energy like the sun. Coal employment has dropped so low that there are now fewer than 53,000 coal miners in total in the U.S. (the failing retailer J.C. Penny has about twice as many workers).

The EPA estimates Trump’s new pollution rules will, by 2030, cause about 1,400 more early deaths a year from coal-related air pollution. One straightforward way the Trump administration could help prevent these deaths would be to retrain coal miners to work in a more profitable industry, such as the solar industry.

A study I helped write looked into the question of how coal workers might be prepared for jobs in the solar industry. We found that this sort of transition is possible and, in many cases, would even give coal workers better pay.

But how to make the change?

People still in the coal-mining industry have remarkably uniform characteristics compared with the rest of Americans. They are mostly white (96.4 percent); male (96.2 percent); older, having an average age of 43.8 years; and relatively unschooled (76.7 percent have only a high school degree or its equivalent.) Many are nonetheless quite capable of doing advanced work. Of all the jobs found in the coal-mining industry, the biggest percentage — 27 percent — are filled by equipment operators. Many of these workers’ talents and abilities would fit in quite naturally in the solar industry.

In our study, we looked at what coal workers are capable of doing and then tabulated their salaries. For each type of job, we found the closest equivalent type of job in the solar industry and tried to match current coal salaries. We then calculated the time and expense  needed to retrain each worker.

Our results show there is a wide variety of employment opportunities in the solar industry. According to one industry-group estimate, the solar industry, with its 250,000 workers, already employs more than five times more people than does coal mining. We also found the annual pay in the solar industry is generally better at all levels of schooling, even for the lowest-skilled jobs. For example, janitors in the coal industry could increase their salaries by 7 percent by becoming low-skilled mechanical assemblers in the solar industry.

In general, we found that after retraining, technical workers (the vast majority) would make more money in the solar industry. (One disclaimer: This study was done before it became increasingly common to hire temporary coal workers.)

The one exception we found concerned managers. They, executives in particular, would make less in the solar industry. But people in these positions constitute only about 3.2 percent of all coal workers.

Retraining needs

How would coal workers make this transition? There are more than 40 types of solar jobs listed by the Department of Energy. They range from entry-level jobs, such as installer positions, to more advanced positions in engineering and technical design. Most coal workers could not simply walk into a solar job; they would need some retraining. But certain positions require less of this than others.

For example, a structural engineer in the coal industry would not expect to need additional schooling to find a similar job in the solar industry. And for some coal employees, the retraining would amount to only a short course or on-the-job training. This is particularly true for installers, who have the greatest number of jobs in the solar industry.

There are various programs already set up to provide this sort of training, such as California’s solar-apprenticeship program.

To be sure, people who want advanced positions would need more schooling. Some solar-related engineering positions call for a four-year university degree, which can cost anywhere from $18,000 to over $136,000, depending on what school one attends.

In general, though, our analysis suggested that a relatively small amount of money would allow the vast majority of coal miners to move into the solar industry. In our worst-case scenario, the cost would be $1.87 billion.

Counting the benefits

Although there was a dip in the number of solar jobs that were available last year, the solar industry in general needs trained workers. Since the cost of solar photovoltaic technology has decreased rapidly, unsubsidized solar equipment is now often the least expensive source of electric power, and the use of such equipment is increasing in the U.S.

The way I see it, if our country retrains coal miners for the solar industry, the workers themselves win by making larger salaries in an expanding industry; America wins because we will be able to compete more effectively if we can take advantage of cheaper electricity; America wins again because we’ll have lower health-care costs and fewer early deaths from coal-fired air pollution; and America wins a third time because we’ll have a stronger economy driven in part by employment in the solar industry. Then, of course, there are the environmental benefits.

President Trump could even win by taking credit for it – he did recently sign an executive order meant to give a boost to American apprenticeships.That is a lot of winning.

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