Democracy Dies in Darkness

Wonkblog | Analysis

The entire coal industry employs fewer people than Arby's

By Christopher Ingraham

March 31, 2017 at 7:00 AM

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Flanked by cabinet members and coal miners, President Trump introduced and signed an executive order on March 28, that revokes Obama-era climate regulations and puts "an end to the war on coal,” he said. (The White House)

"My action today is the latest in a series of steps to create American jobs and to grow American wealth," President Trump said earlier this week before a group of coal miners.

Trump was announcing the rollback of several Obama-era environmental regulations that would have affected industries such as coal mining. Trump has repeatedly claimed that over-regulation has led to a decline in coal-industry jobs.

"I made them this promise," Trump said at the signing. "We will put our miners back to work."

Experts in the industry have already pointed out, repeatedly, that the coal jobs are extremely unlikely to come back. The plight of the coal industry is more a function of changing energy markets and increased demand for natural gas than anything else.

The chief executive of the nation's largest privately held coal operation told the Guardian earlier this month that Trump "can't bring back."

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.

If anything the numbers above over-estimate the jobs impact of coal relative to other industries. Since 2014 the coal industry has shrunk further according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to 50,300 employees as of February 2017.

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.

Scott Tiller, a coal miner of 31 years, takes a break while operating a machine in a narrow coal mine in Welch, W.Va., in October 2015. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

Of course, part of the fixation on coal is because mining has always loomed large in the American imagination. There's something mysterious and ennobling about the dangerous endeavor to extract valuable commodities from deep within the earth, something that's missing from, say, used-car sales or ski-lift operation.

There's also a larger economic debate about coal's impact on the economy, given the large role it plays in generating the nation's electricity. But while the industry's impact is large, its payrolls aren't.

The other thing about coal is that unlike retail and other industries, coal is highly concentrated in certain regions. When coal mines shut down, towns go under. National media sends reporters and TV crews to those towns, and the resulting coverage can make coal's impact on national employment levels feel much larger than it actually is.

That national impact is only likely to get smaller, regardless of Trump's actions. Even a quarter-century ago, the coal industry employed only 131,000 people. If Trump were to somehow bring all those jobs back, there'd still be more people employed by the retail shoe sales industry (224,000).

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Coal is one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and a major climate change contributor. So why are we still using it? For the same reasons we always have: it’s cheap, plentiful, easy to transport and easy to get. (Jorge Ribas and Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

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