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What Can Bring Jobs To Coal Country?


We've been driving in the Appalachian Mountains with a question in mind - what can bring opportunity to rural America? We asked in a place where a coal mine opened last month. President Trump praised that mine in Somerset County, Pa., which voted overwhelmingly for him. But as we heard yesterday, a rural area needs more. So as we moved from place to place, we asked workers and employers about the possibilities.

Oh, this has got potential.


INSKEEP: Oh, almost a strike - a couple pins still standing for the young man in the Adidas T-shirt.

It's parents and children night at Terrace Lanes. Bowler Terry Smith is a thin man, soft-spoken and deadly accurate.

I just saw you throw a strike. You must be a pretty good bowler.

TERRY SMITH: Just lucky.

INSKEEP: Just lucky - like, 10 times in a row lucky?

SMITH: (Laughter) Yeah.

INSKEEP: Lucky in some things. For a quarter century, he worked as a coal miner.

SMITH: I used to run every spring. I couldn't run anymore. So that's when I went and got checked out. And I found I had black lung.

INSKEEP: His lungs will never recover from the coal dust he inhaled. Today, he works at a ski resort, managing a bowling alley like this one.

If you could go back in the coal mine today, would you do it?

SMITH: Yeah. Yes, I would. Yep, I loved it.

INSKEEP: It's safe to say that much of Somerset County feels the same. People have mined here for generations. But even if coal does expand again, modern mines employ only handfuls of people. Somerset County has other employers in bigger industries where President Trump's influence is much less certain.


INSKEEP: Several bowling lanes over, Jeremy Rogers is throwing left-handed, putting a wicked curve on the ball.

How'd you do that?

JEREMY ROGERS: Like I tell my son, you come out - your fingertips come out last. And you come up like you're shaking hands.

INSKEEP: In this county that younger people often leave, Rogers moved here in his 30s. He came to work for a medical device company. Its respiratory devices help people with sleep apnea or black lung. Making them takes a lot of labor.

ROGERS: We're a union shop - about, say, 300 total.

INSKEEP: I mean, that's actually - for a community like this where they celebrated a coal mine that opened with 70 jobs, you know...

ROGERS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: And you've got 300 going. That's really interesting.


INSKEEP: We heard Somerset Hospital employs 900 people, so we drove over to meet the CEO, Craig Saylor, in the employee cafeteria.

CRAIG SAYLOR: We have a largely senior community that does not want or cannot travel.

INSKEEP: This rural hospital saves them a trip to a distant city. Seniors depend on government health care. Up to 80 percent of the patients here rely on Medicare or Medicaid. The hospital could be affected by a Republican health bill that would restrain Medicaid spending.

SAYLOR: Ultimately, someone has to either take a pay cut or, in the case of hospitals, absorb that loss of care.

INSKEEP: And that hospital is just one of the businesses we saw that the new administration could affect over time.

Oh you can see them. It's a misty day, but you can see the giant blades twisting out there in the distance.

We drove past the churches of a town called Berlin and up the slopes of Big Savage Mountain. We stopped and climbed into the pickup truck of Erik Widner.

ERIK WIDNER: A little bit tight in here - apologize about that.

INSKEEP: He's 28 with a tangled, brown beard. He's overseeing a wind farm, 68 turbines lined up on two mountain ridges. We talked as we drove up to see one of them.

So where are you from, Erik?

WIDNER: Originally from Berlin.

INSKEEP: You mean this little town we passed on the way in?

WIDNER: Yeah, that little town.

INSKEEP: He went away to college but was able to return for a job.

WIDNER: There's a lot of young folks that are just leaving the area. But with the wind industry coming in, there's a lot of good-paying jobs for technicians.

INSKEEP: We stopped at the base of a white pole some 260 feet high.

That's turbine No. 46, I'm guessing.

WIDNER: Turbine No. 46.

INSKEEP: Three immense blades were turning overhead. The renewable energy business increasingly co-exists here with coal.

WIDNER: I know one of our sites was built on an old strip mine.

INSKEEP: What did you think about when President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord - or said that the U.S. would pull out when it can?

WIDNER: I didn't agree with it at the time, but I do see some silver linings.

INSKEEP: Really?

WIDNER: A lot of the states and local authorities have been taking the Paris Agreement on its own shoulders.

INSKEEP: The growing numbers of wind turbines here show the rural economy is complex. Many national policies could help it improve or make it harder to repair.


INSKEEP: We drop by a repair shop in Somerset County, where two men were replacing the engine on a coal truck. Barron Trucking is doing more business as the coal industry expands. We sat with owner Jim Barron and his daughter Jen, who helps to run the company. Jen keeps a sign by her desk. It reads, I watch people and wonder how some of them found their way out of the birth canal.

JEN BARRON: I'm telling you, when you work with truck drivers, you got to have a sense of humor (laughter).

INSKEEP: The Barrons are like several employers we met in Somerset. Their problem isn't really the lack of jobs. It's the lack of qualified workers.

BARRON: Trying to find a blue-collar worker in this area that can pass a drug test is the biggest challenge.

INSKEEP: So if you have 10 guys who applied for a job, like, how many of them might fail the test?

BARRON: Eight.

INSKEEP: Are you kidding me?

BARRON: No - you...

INSKEEP: 'Cause I assume some people don't even apply.

BARRON: If you have 10 people apply for a job - if you get two to come back to actually hire, you're lucky. This industry, first of all, is not an easy job. You're a hamster in a wheel, and the pay does not justify the hours that you put in.

INSKEEP: The median income in Somerset is well below the national average. Barron says a lack of economic development forces the most qualified workers to leave.

BARRON: You've got to go where the jobs are. The only thing that has moved to Somerset is fast food.

INSKEEP: Wind turbines - we did see some wind turbines today. That's one thing.

BARRON: They're a joke.

INSKEEP: She just doesn't believe that windmills can really pay for themselves.

BARRON: And did you ever notice the noise that comes off of them? (Imitating buzz) It's constant. I'm like, that would drive me crazy.

INSKEEP: Some people get upset over coal mines. You know, there's pollution, and they're dirty and noisy and everything else. That doesn't bother you. I mean, you're right by coal mine. But the wind...

BARRON: That's my bread and butter. Coal mine's my bread and butter.

INSKEEP: It's easier to tolerate the industry that pays the bills and keeps that truck in the repair shop rolling.


INSKEEP: One thing we saw in the rural economy was possibility. No one industry will likely dominate as coal once did here, but we found the seeds of a more diverse economy with multiple employers, more flexible in hard times. It'll be up to Somerset County residents to grow it, though decisions being made in Washington will influence their chances. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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