Breaking the code

PHOTO: James Cridland, Flickr CC

PHOTO: James Cridland, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

In a March 27 op-ed in the Mesabi Daily News, Republican congressional candidate Stewart Mills argued that environmental regulations aimed at reducing the carbon emissions from coal is akin to a “war on ore.”

“As your congressman, I will fight the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been weaponized by Democrats in the fight against safe and clean mining operations,” writes Mills.

It’s easy to generate comparisons between the Appalachian coal mining region of southeastern Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia and Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. It seems, too, that political rhetoric between the two grow more similar all the time. Market trends and automation are shape-shifting enemies, but it’s easy to hate the government.

There is, of course, a very real historic relationship between Coal and Iron countries. Minnesota iron ore has long joined Appalachian coal and coke to make steel in Ohio and Pennsylvania blast furnaces, as Mills reminds us. In addition, it’s not terribly difficult to find a politician of either party in either place willing to say that the federal government has some nefarious agenda to destroy the region in question. “Destruction,” of course, is in the eyes of the beholder.

What Mills doesn’t say is that, like Appalachian coal country, the Iron Range has long twisted in tempest winds produced by the economic booms and busts of mining. Only Coal Country been “busting” far longer than we have.

Of course, our country still uses coal. We burn it here in Northern Minnesota (albeit of the Western variety). Coke is still needed to make steel. And the country still needs steel. So what’s the problem?

We need less coal than ever. The demand for coal hasn’t gone up in 100 years. By comparison, the demand for iron has been remarkably steady. In fact, we produce more taconite in Minnesota than Kentucky produces coal. What is true in both industries is that fewer workers are needed to do the mining than before. That’s why we’ve lost thousands of jobs since the 1970s, while Appalachia has lost tens of thousands.

In a Feb. 3 story by Tim Loh for Bloomberg, we learn how displaced coal miners are retraining for new careers. The same thing is happening now on the Iron Range with iron miners laid off due to the current steel industry downturn.

But the Kentucky miners in Loh’s story are being trained for something you might not expect. They are learning how to code, so they can write software and manage networks. A pilot program has shown such promise that a engineering firm has diversified into software development in rural Kentucky, using the available workforce.

What the company knew was that modern miners do work that is far more technical than most folks realize.

PHOTO: James Cridland, Flickr CC

PHOTO: James Cridland, Flickr CC

“We didn’t think that was that big of a jump,” said BitSource company owner Rusty Justice in the Bloomberg story. “Daggone, these are high-tech workers that just get dirty.”

With cities like Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington nearby, tech firms are hiring workers that earn the same salary as a coal miner. And, in increasing numbers, former coal miners are among those getting the jobs. In some cases they’re e-commuting from the same hills they once mined.

Here in Minnesota, Minneapolis and even Duluth are cited as technocratic cities on the rise. What if we embraced the same possibilities here?

Many Iron Range miners have opportunities to retrain through federal trade assistance funding. However, I’ve talked to several who complain that they’re forced into fields that would require them to move great distances or compete for jobs similar to the ones they lost. It’s a paradox, because funding is tilted toward fields that hire, but they often don’t consider fields that hire remotely.

[Read my major post from this past week discussing the imbalance in the Iron Range employment picture]

No, mining isn’t dead. It’ll continue for some fixed period of time into the future. What I’m talking about is investing in the people left behind by the inevitable decline in total mining jobs, same in Hibbing, Minnesota, as in Pikeville, Kentucky, Ouro Preto, Brazil, or Datong, China.

What Appalachia and the Iron Range really share is the challenge of recovering from deindustrialization. The reasons our great-grandparents came to these beautiful, remote places are fading into history. This is ordained in all regions where people extract natural resources, through all of human history.

Thus, we learn that what really matters to an economy is people. If people are willing to learn, work and develop, you can form an economy. More importantly, you can form a vibrant community.

People are being displaced by our rapidly changing world economy. Not just miners, but people across the vocational spectrum. Will we break the code that weds us to the past, or will we instead write a new future for our people?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 3, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Steve Giorgi says

    I couldn’t agree with you more regarding exploring job training for something not directly related to mining or natural resources. The first thing I believe we need to make those opportunities feasible is high speed internet across our region. If we had invested in an Internet trail across the Range rather than a bike trail we would be far ahead in our search for new and different job opportunities in this region. We can train code writers but we won’t attract the tech industry without the broadband they need to locate here. I know there are pockets of good quality broadband but why not securing it for all?

    • Thanks, Steve. At this point, I *assume* investment in broadband. There were a lot of missed opportunities over the years, but we have the ability to do better now. Indeed, no one’s going to invest in tech industry without tech infrastructure. More importantly, lack of broadband access inhibits home grown and e-commuting professions already in our midst. I wish every Iron Range leader could listen in the to conversations tech workers have when shopping for houses in Northeastern Minnesota.

  2. Gray Camp says

    With the IRRRB region covering 13,000 square miles, many of which are sparsely populated, is it reasonable to think we can afford to provide broadband to every place in those 13,000 square miles where a person may choose to live? I definitely support investing in broadband to all places with decent population densities.

    • I’d agree that a ubiquitous network over the entire Northeast *might* not be possible, but what I’m talking about is including broadband in the same infrastructure as power and phones. Places with paved roads should have access. Priority should be given to the most populated places first, but the goal should be to consider broadband as equivalent economically, culturally and functionally to electricity and phones. Broadband is low-maintenance. The cost is in installation. That’s something that public policy can address.

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