A new generation of miners is in training in central Appalachia, where a onetime hub of the nation's coal industry is recovering from prolonged slumps that shuttered mines, bankrupted companies and whittled away the life from communities.
Vernon Johnson, 34, who is tall and broad-shouldered, left his job in the trucking industry to become one of the new faces entering the midnight blackness of the subterranean mazes. Now he works for Alpha Natural Resources, a Washington County-based coal company, wearing the soot-crusted red helmet of an apprentice miner while working under this patch of southwest Virginia.
He and other new miners are replacing older workers who are retiring just as the world market is demanding more coal. Johnson hopes that by early next month, he will be a full-fledged miner making more than $50,000, plus health and pension benefits.
Standing on the cool, muddy floor, in muddy boots, with a mud-splattered face in Roaring Fork Mine No. 3, Johnson explained what lured him to work underground, doing work that has felled thousands of men and crippled thousands more.
"Yeah, it's tough, and yeah, it's dirty," he said, his raised voice barely a peep over the jackhammer clatter of a machine tearing into the earth on a relentless search for the black rock. "But when I heard there was a chance to work in the mines, I hopped right to it. . . . Good work close to home hasn't been easy to come by around here."
When coal companies had their first job fairs last year, 800 people showed up in Castlewood, an Appalachian hamlet not far from Nora. The companies had expected 200 to show up. Community colleges in this area that five years ago could not find enough students who wanted to take mining certification or safety classes are ramping up their programs.
"Coal jobs have always been the best-paying jobs around here," said Lawrence Hollyfield, 56, a second-generation coal miner who retired several years ago and now teaches courses in mining safety at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. "The pay is better than Wal-Mart, better than a job in the prisons. That's why these kids are going back into the mines."
Today's mining is a mix of 21st-century technology and old-era grit. Cramped shaft elevators and rickety, open-air shuttle cars still sink into the mountains and take miners to the low-slung alleys and tunnels. Workers still move on all fours in crawl spaces so they can mine hard-to-reach seams. And it's still dark, dirty, dusty and, in some cases, dangerous.
But the pickax and shovel days are long gone. Heavy cutting and lifting are executed in a ballet between remote-controlled rock-cutting machines -- called "continuous miners," they tear into the vaults of coal -- and shuttles that, looking as if they should be on a lunar surface, zip loads of coal through battleship-gray passages. Automatically controlled conveyer belts haul the coal hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet to the surface -- work once done by pit ponies.
Often, workers in the mines stand yards from the action, controlling the continuous miners and other equipment as if they were a powering a hulking, remote-controlled toy car.
"If you like playing video games, this is the job for you," said George Owens, a former miner-turned-executive for Abingdon-based Alpha, somewhat jokingly referring to the digital automation that much of mining has become. Workers handle consoles that resemble PlayStation or Xbox joysticks.
For years, coal companies large and small in central Appalachia -- a three-state region that largely includes southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky -- did not need to recruit anyone new.
Coal prices through much of the 1980s and 1990s were down, as the industry nationwide was struck by oversupply and by the decline of the U.S. steel industry.
In addition, new technologies meant that fewer strong backs were needed to burrow into the coal-bearing stretches. The Appalachian coal miner seemed a vanishing species as recently as several years ago, and the numbers appeared to prove it: Virginia, which produces the ninth-largest amount of coal in the country, had 10,000 miners in 1987; by last year, the state had 5,000.
The average age of a coal miner is about 52, according to federal statistics, meaning that over the next decade, a steady supply of workers will be leaving the mines for good.
But coal still produces more than half the electricity generated in the United States, and expanding economies in this country and China have created a huge demand for electricity.
The National Mining Association expects U.S. coal production to be a record 1.14 billion tons this year, up from 1.11 billion last year. And the increase comes amid rising coal prices: The price of coal from central Appalachia has risen to nearly $60 a ton from roughly $30 a ton two years ago, according to industry analysts.
"We were having a tough time there for a while. . . . I guess you could say we were sputtering," said Dink Shackleford, executive director of the Virginia Mining Association in Norton, one of the communities spawned by mining during the latter part of the 19th century. "But people realize mining has its benefits and it can help them support their families."
To lure the new generation, coal companies are competing with each other to establish incentives, including increased starting pay, discounts on home and car insurance and offers to pay a greater share of their employees' health care premiums.
It is relatively easy to find applicants to fill the openings for entry-level positions, but hiring qualified employees who understand how to work the equipment's modern technology has proved more difficult, coal companies have said. In addition, the industry has struggled to find experienced miners to become foremen and supervisors, as well as other skilled employees to work as electricians and engineers -- jobs that pay as much as $100,000 a year, including overtime.
The companies often highlight that because of automation, the notoriously difficult work is not as backbreaking, dangerous or deadly as it once was. Last year, 28 miners nationwide were killed on the job, down from 47 in 1993. Companies also have said new ventilation technology has helped nearly eliminate the hazardous coal dust in mines that led to such lung ailments as black lung disease, which crippled many generations of coal mountaineers.
"My friends all said I was crazy for going back in," Johnson said. "Telling me: 'Coal companies need a pair of fresh lungs, eh?' I had to tell them that's old stuff they're talking."
The companies hope to convince new recruits that miners will have a steady job with stable benefits for years to come.
"It's been a long time since we've had to hire people, so we've had to reintroduce ourselves to the workforce," said Doug Harris, vice president of human resources for Dickenson-Russell Coal, one of the dozens of small mining operations that pepper Virginia's coal fields.
Many people are skeptical of whether the miner hiring boom is here to stay -- and whether it will have the broad impact it had generations ago in lifting miners and their families from poverty.
This is still a depressed corner of the Virginia, where in many stretches, one in four people live below the poverty line. Old mountain burgs and coal hollows that once hummed with life still line winding country passes, only now many are depressed, their company stores boarded up. As jobs left in recent decades, so did the people.
Now, as the industry experiences an increase in prices, local governments -- which depend on taxes from coal companies to finance roads and other public works -- also find themselves better off. And small businesses that supply coal companies with equipment have started to sprout up throughout Virginia's seven coal-bearing counties.
"It's been pretty unexpected, but it's been good for the economy so far," said Glen "Skip" Skinner, county administrator for Wise County, which has seen payments from coal companies double in the past five years.
"The jobs opening up, coming back -- it means I can take care of my family and stay close to home," Johnson said, his stiff coveralls coated with dirt and mud. "There are always people who are going to worry about the future of coal -- is it going to stay? -- but this is still a good thing for us."