Truth behind the numbers on mining jobs

Portrait of coal miner Harry Fain at Inland Steel’s Wheelwright Mine in Floyd County, Kentucky. Original 1946 photo by Russell Lee, colorized by Nicolas Rogeron, Flickr CC.

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.

Arby’s employees assemble sandwiches at an airbase exchange location on the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Lancaster, Flickr CC)

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.

Ingraham concludes:

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.


  1. independant says

    I agree we should diversify the iron range economy. However if there isn’t an underlying dislike of mining in general why shouldn’t we be developing and expanding the local mining industry and at the same time work to diversify our economy by attracting new non mining elements. It is much easier to lure new projects and development to an area if we had solid employment and main streets full of operating businesses instead of shuttered blight. If we do get a boom in mining development we cannot squander that prime opportunity to diversify. It would be easy to become complacent again if a couple big mining projects get going. I am a supporter of an all of the above approach.

  2. Sure. Great. But those projects are hung up right now. First permitting, then the legal process. It’ll probably happen, but it will take time. So what do we do now? This is what I’m getting at. Blighted downtowns and lack of activity in town are problems we can address now, so long as our communities and their leaders care to do something. Some of this stuff doesn’t even need to be expensive, but it will be time consuming and it will require the prioritization of resources for new goals.

    My deeper point is that even if I could waive a wand and grant permits and absolve legal challenges for PolyMet and Twin Metals, those companies would still need customers and investors to mine. Again, will probably happen eventually, but not necessarily right away. And THEN when they’re running, they’ll employ a number of people roughly equivalent to a taconite mine. Are you confident we won’t lose a taconite plant in the next ten years? If you are, you are more optimistic than me. Thus, we will probably not see that much more *new* economic activity around these new mines (excluding construction, of course, which will be a temporary boom).

    That’s the problem. As our chambers of commerce and political leaders spend their free time writing op/eds and coordinating responses to environmentalists, they could be doing something about our communities now. It’s the safest bet. It’s the policy that would have a direct benefit no matter what happens in mining, good or bad. And that’s what I’m talking about. I don’t disagree with the notion that these projects could create jobs and benefit people. But I do believe we need to let them play out as they will, and at least create a parallel initiative that does not push or rely upon mining.

    I’d encourage anyone to talk to local college students and high school seniors. I do every day. For every one that hopes to work at a nonferrous or iron mine in the future there are 20 who want something else out of life. We must create a community for them, too.

    • independant says

      … and that is why an all of the above approach is a no brainer to me. Making a statement that only one in twenty high school/college age young adults would be interested in “work” at a mine is loaded. How about a job working in the Engineering Department within one of these mining companies? Human Resources? Planning & Scheduling? Accounting? How about a job with one of the numerous engineering firms, vendors or contractors that will support these projects long beyond just the construction phase. The billions of dollars pumped into our local economy would be massive and should not be taken lightly. I however completely agree with you that diversification must happen.

  3. Reid Carron says

    The problem with the views expressed by both independant and Aaron is that they ignore the real, demonstrable, unavoidable, for-sure-and-certain negative impacts of more mining–especially sulfide-ore copper mining–and especially Twin Metals or any other potential projects in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness watershed. Mining–especially copper mining–is great for a relatively few individuals who get high-paying jobs, but it’s horrible for communities. It’s horrible for land and water. Since I moved to Minnesota in 1973, the two constants have been the Vikings’ failure to win the Super Bowl and the relentless drumbeat of “poor us” from the Iron Range. The Iron Range unemployment rate is high because of a blasted, destroyed landscape and the stranglehold that the mining industry has on civic and political life. What employer wants to locate in such a place? Who wants to move there? There really are NOT two sides to this story if our interest is in healthy communities for the long-run. Allowing sulfide-ore copper mining is inherently destructive to real efforts to diversify. Aaron, you should be anti-copper mining–especially anti-Twin Metals, because if that project goes ahead Ely is toast, and a huge chunk of the sustainable tourist/retiree/vacation home/portable job economy of the Arrowhead is toast. Have you looked at Twin Metals’ own document–the 43-101 “prefeasibility study” that it was required to file with the Canadian government? A peer-reviewed scientific analysis based on the 43-101 shows that under normal mining operations pollution from the proposed mine would flow into the Boundary Waters through both surface water and groundwater. The study’s author concluded that “a leak will occur that will have major impacts on the water quality of the Boundary Waters . . . .” (A different recent study of 14 modern U.S. sulfide-ore copper mines (accounting for 89% of U.S. copper production) showed that all 14 experienced releases of pollution and that 13 of the 14 mines experienced water collection or treatment failures that resulted in significant water pollution.)
    The 43-101 also shows what a catastrophe a Twin Metals mine would be for thousands of acres of land and water on the South Kawishiwi and Birch Lake and for the people who depend on the health of the area. No greater scam is being perpetrated than the idea that a Twin Metals mine would be “underground.” Thousands of surface acres would be devoured by a processing plant, waste piles, pipelines, power lines, roads, paste plants, access and ventilation portals, and more. The noise would be relentless. Hundreds of homes—representing the life savings of many people—and scores of businesses would see their value essentially obliterated. A healthy economic, social, and political future for Northeastern Minnesota depends on excluding copper mining from “all” in “all of the above.”

    • Ranger Who Wants A Healthy Economy says

      If this is truly how you feel about the future of the Iron Range, then expect a Republican governor and Minnesota to become red. Remember the Minnesota Massacre?

      Its exactly the attitude like this that will give Otto the nomination and Daubt the governorship.

      If in the OFF chance Otto wins, then you win too. Congrats! The Iron Range becomes a ghost region and the only jobs up here would be minimum-wage-paying gas stations and minimum-wage-paying restaurants. Since BWCAW visitors are aging and becoming fewer, expect the outfitters of Ely to face the same fate.

  4. Marlise Riffel says

    Wonderful! David Abazs’ 2010 study on local agriculture showed that the Western Lake Superior region could, if we grew our own food, add five times as many jobs as mining currently provides and keep 900 Million per year local. David will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Iron Range Earth Fest on April 22. He’ll share his vision for “The Future of Iron Range Food and Farming — Growing Local Food, Creating Local Jobs” 10:30am at Messiah Lutheran Church. This is an overlooked job creator.

    • independent says

      That is rich. Ask all of the Finish imagrants who tried like hell to farm this area. After they were blackballed by mining companies for their socialist views most worked their ass off to try and farm instead. They did not have an easy time to say the least. If you drive four hours west of the iron range you will find land that is farmable.

  5. Walleye Bill says

    I live in Cass Lake, near Bemidji and have to say that Bemidji and the surrounding area is booming! And hey, there are no mines over here.
    I do hope to move back to Ely some day as a packsacker. My wife is a native and we still own property up there.
    I agree with the previous commenter that if the copper sulfide mine is developed, Ely is toast! We wouldn’t be moving back.

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