During a presidential race in the not-too-distant past, one candidate campaigned successfully on his outreach to blue-collar voters, whom he called “the forgotten Americans.”
There was a time when blue-collar types were far from forgotten. The most popular TV character was “Happy Days’” the Fonz – an auto mechanic. His circle of friends included Laverne and Shirley – factory workers. Archie Bunker, meanwhile, was a loading dock foreman. James Evans of “Good Times” was a dock worker. “Alice” was a waitress. Then there were the characters on “Taxi.” At the movies, you found Luke Skywalker, a kid growing up on a farm. On the radio, Billy Joel sang about Allentown. Bruce Springsteen sang about blue collar dreams pretty much all the time.
By comparison, blue-collar people nowadays seem comparatively forgotten in popular culture. And where they do appear, they might even be scoffed at rather than celebrated.
But in the real world, these are indispensable citizens, people on whom we depend for the basic functioning of businesses, industry and civilization itself.
This year, Utah Foundation has focused squarely on the fate of one group of Utahns who have long filled the ranks of the state’s indispensable citizens – its coal industry workers. As our Coal Counties report series demonstrates, their industry is changing quickly, along with the prospects for the counties they live in.
Of course, changes in the coal industry are nothing new. Productivity increased in the 20th century, particularly in the 1980s. At the same time, the number of coal mining jobs decreased. But in more recent years, coal production itself has been declining in Utah. In 2015, production was down nearly half from 2001.
Meanwhile, the outlook for demand within Utah is not strong. One coal-fueled power plant closed in 2015, another coal-fueled operation is projected to end by 2025, and another by 2030. This could decrease the demand for coal from Utah’s mines. And it will mean a loss of jobs.
Today, about 1,000 people work in Utah’s coal mines. Beyond those numbers, trucking and other jobs support coal mining operations. Another 1,500 people work in Utah’s five coal-fueled power plants.
It remains to be seen whether Trump administration policies can help bring back jobs for coal miners and coal-fueled power plants. Recent reductions in coal mine employment are due to an array of factors, including a decrease in demand, the result of low natural gas prices and increased coal-fueled electricity generation regulation. The cost of electricity from natural gas, wind, and solar is now typically lower than operating, maintaining, and upgrading coal-fueled resources. In 2015, natural gas electricity production surpassed coal nationally.
The bottom line: Across the nation, many coal communities have been shrinking.
That’s not necessarily the case in Utah’s coal communities, but some of them are seeing much less growth than other areas of the state. While the coal counties of Kane, Sanpete, Sevier, and Uintah have grown robustly in the past 25 years, the populations in Carbon, Emery and Millard counties have stood still. Collectively, Utah’s coal counties have averaged about half the percentage of the statewide growth.
Governor Gary Herbert is looking to create 25,000 new jobs in Utah’s 25 non-Wasatch Front counties by 2020. There is a broad and deep effort toward this end. The Utah Legislature has passed bills to bolster economic development, and there are numerous state agencies involved in the effort. Several public-private partnerships are working on rural job creation. The federal government is also involved. Utah’s more-rural counties themselves are playing a lead role in this effort.
With an uncertain future for coal mining and coal-fueled electricity in Utah, diversification may hold the key. For industry, there may be opportunities for diversification in the uses of coal, such as carbon fiber and liquid-coal alternative fuels. There are also opportunities to shift toward non-coal electricity-generation sources. And local economies will need to look for ways to diversify that fit their profile, examining the potential in agriculture, tech jobs, manufacturing and tourism. These communities may also be able to turn some of their weaknesses to their advantage by marketing their available work force and lower property values to expanding manufacturers as a potential low-cost alternative to heavily urbanized areas.
Economic change is a fact of life. Baghdad and Damascus each had a day in the sun. Venice was once the center of the economic world; now it’s a vacation stop. Closer to home, Buffalo, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh now must look to the history books to recover their economic glory days.
But with effort, flexibility and creativity, Utah’s coal counties might someday look at this time as a turning point – the years when their true glory days were only in the making.
To read Utah Foundation’s Coal Counties report series, visit www.utahfoundation.org.