American Longwall Magazine spoke with industry representatives making up two different corners of industry: the educational institutions training workers, many of which will be new to the industry upon graduation, as well as coal owners themselves who are hiring and maintaining efficient, quality workers at their operations.
Foundation Coal communications representative Peter Vietti said the impact of the miner shortage is much like the decline in all areas across the country; however, “the mining industry has felt the greatest impact in the areas of attracting and retaining highly-skilled personnel,” he said, adding that specific “skilled trades such as certified electricians, mechanics [and] engineering disciplines” were where the greatest needs exist.
Incentive use for hiring workers is fairly recent but is seeing a significant upswing, said Dr Larry Grayson, chair of the Department of Mining and Nuclear Engineering for University of Missouri-Rolla.
“We saw the beginning of [it] about two years ago, but it was modest – $1000 to $2000 – and only a few companies were doing it,” he said. “It grew last year, and some hiring incentives reached $4000 plus relocation expenses.”
West Virginia University chairman of mining engineering Syd Peng concurred, saying incentives are growing in popularity “due to extreme shortage of graduate coal mining engineers and the fact that the average workforce age is 53-plus with major coal companies. All major coal companies are competing to hire a few graduates each year. Incentives also help companies to select and keep good students.”
American Energy’s Century mine manager Ryan Murray stated there were no existing recruitment programs at its operations, but Grayson said he has seen a significant change in the reports he gets from his students searching for work in the industry. “An offer for a new vehicle has occurred recently,” he said, adding that cash bonuses and paid relocation often most effectively caught the attention of students.
Peng also said his students are reporting incentives including higher salaries, sign-up bonuses and other fringe benefits, such as company cars, as well as grant awards for students to attend school with an obligation to work for the company for a specified time after graduation.
As reflected in American Energy and Foundation’s protocols, Grayson noted incentive offers were not available across the board in that “[some] types of companies are giving more modest ones, and some are not yet giving them.”
Part of the continued success of an operation is the quality of its people, and that is one area where coal companies really do place concentration. Vietti said Foundation places a high priority on retaining its workforce.
“Incentives are not used to recruit employees, but are used as an employee retention tool. [Our] affiliates profess a good total compensation program coupled with safe, well-run operations and a company reputation and culture that makes FCL a preferred place to work,” said Vietti, adding that hourly, salaried management and degreed professional employees are all given the same consideration. The company also offers cash retention bonuses.
However, Grayson noted he’s observed a pattern of movement among graduates that may need to be addressed. “We have been seeing our alums being pretty mobile lately. As they leave, they create vacancies that have to be filled.”
Foundation may be helping to deal with that issue through recently established programs that speak to students who are beginning to think about their futures. “[We’re] supporting two-year technical degree programs and four-year universities [programs] to fill supervisory ranks,” he said of Foundation’s effort, which began in January 2006.
Additionally, Vietti offered, the company is proactively involved in supporting “federally and state-funded programs with the West Virginia Coal Association and Washington United Mine Workers of American Training Center, which will commence operations in the near future.”
Training is another area of priority, according to Vietti, for maintaining the best talent. In fact, Foundation has a company-wide skills training program that is offered at several of its operations and it actively joins forces with local community colleges near mines to train and certify mechanics and electricians.
Grayson said students were definitely aware of the skills shortage and of the vast options nationwide and even internationally from which they could choose a career path, and he said candidates for graduation are proactive in examining those options. “Ninety-nine percent of our students seek and find employment in the mining industry as soon as they graduate.”
Vietti said Foundation is estimating that we still haven’t seen the full force of the retirement wave; it still has momentum. “The greatest impact from retirements is expected to increase over the next five years,” he said.