Like screeching crows or the rattle of a train yard, Northern Minnesota’s never-ending debate about risks and prospects of new mining eventually fades into the background. You get used to it. It matters, but it doesn’t change.
So it’s been interesting to watch a similar debate enter the national discussion. President Trump, during the campaign and since, made coal mining one of his big talking points. Blaming environmentalism generally and President Obama specifically, Trump says he’ll restore the once great industry and the flagging economy of Appalachian states like Kentucky and West Virginia.
That’s essentially the same argument you hear from nonferrous mining supporters here in Northern Minnesota. We lost mining jobs, so we’re going to get them back and make America (the Iron Range) Great Again.
Here’s the problem with that assertion. It fails to recognize the economic truth underneath those job losses.
As I’ve often stated, iron mining went from about 12,000 jobs in the late 1970s to fewer than 4,000 jobs today — all while producing the same amount of iron ore. This is why I talk about industrial automation and technology so much. The numbers are clear.
In coal mining, the total number of jobs lost is much higher, though proportionally similar. The difference is that not only are there fewer jobs due to automation and technology, but there is less demand for coal.
Yes, some of that is due to policies that promote cleaner technology. But much is due to more efficient turbines, more natural gas for energy production, and the fact that steelmaking uses much less coal than it used to.
Keep in mind that at the peak of the coal industry, Americans had coal chutes in their homes, businesses, schools and hospitals. Americans bought coal directly. Now it is a much more specialized business that requires higher quality coal, and less of it that ever before. Even if you could somehow reverse that trend, the actual job creation would be nothing but a shadow of the immense job losses.
This is not a political assertion. It’s a fact of the business.
This story by Minnesota-based journalist Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post shows the reality of what I’m talking about. Analysis of employment data shows that the second tier restaurant chain Arby’s employs more people than the entire coal mining industry.
Another largely overlooked point about coal jobs is that there just aren’t that many of them relative to other industries. There are various estimates of coal-sector employment, but according to the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns program, which allows for detailed comparisons with many other industries, the coal industry employed 76,572 people in 2014, the latest year for which data is available.
That number includes not just miners but also office workers, sales staff and all of the other individuals who work at coal-mining companies.
Although 76,000 might seem like a large number, consider that similar numbers of people are employed by, say, the bowling (69,088) and skiing (75,036) industries. Other dwindling industries, such as travel agencies (99,888 people), employ considerably more. Used-car dealerships provide 138,000 jobs. Theme parks provide nearly 144,000. Carwash employment tops 150,000.
Looking at the level of individual businesses, the coal industry in 2014 (76,572) employed about as many as Whole Foods (72,650), and fewer workers than Arby’s (close to 80,000), Dollar General (105,000) or J.C. Penney (114,000). The country’s largest private employer, Walmart (2.2 million employees) provides roughly 28 times as many jobs as coal.
One of the most frequent criticisms of the rising economy and job growth under President Obama was that it the recovery only existed on the surface. Underneath the low unemployment rate languished a vast population of underemployed people and people who no longer sought work at all.
What happens when people in that economy — far more likely to work at Arby’s, Dollar General or the flailing JCPenney — are squeezed? Coal mining can’t take them in, even under a coal-happy president.
The point isn’t that coal jobs don’t matter — they matter to the people who have them and to the communities they support, especially as they typically pay far more than do jobs in the retail and service industries, But if you’re looking to make a meaningful increase in the number of jobs available to U.S. workers, bringing back coal jobs isn’t going to do it.
In the past year I’ve gradually adopted a new editorial strategy when it comes to talking about mining jobs. Rather than rushing to write about the drip, drip, drip of developments in nonferrous mining, I will instead focus on economic diversification and culture. That’s not an anti-mining position, by the way, though it is often interpreted as such. I don’t really care whether you think it is or isn’t. I don’t belong to any of the warring factions.
Instead, I am radical in this belief. Northern Minnesota needs a balanced, diverse economy. I have concluded that focusing entirely on mining, even “innovative new mining,” fails to push the necessary policies and thinking to advance diversification. It has been proven both here on the Iron Range and around the world that mining alone does not provide inherent economic diversification. It promotes dependency. Great jobs, yes. But without local control — and all mining companies are global now — we live at the whim of distant powers.
Thus I promote economic independence. I have yet to hear a good argument against economic independence, though there are many arguments about how to get there. I welcome those arguments. And I welcome mining projects that successfully navigate a system designed to ensure environmental protection and the public good. But I’m not going to wait for them. Nor should the Iron Range. There are more pressing matters, evident in economic and workforce trends highlighted by Ingraham and many others.
Nostalgia is a trick of the mind, not an economic policy.