On January 4, 2020, Joe Biden commented on his presidential campaign tour, in front of a rally of Mid-Westerners, that coal miners should learn how to program. Implying that their skills and industry are obsolete. Dust!

The media responded by commenting about his supposed aloofness. Some outlets simply reported on and broadcasted audio clips of his speech, while others condemned his supposed gaffe and called him insensitive.

Throughout the years, many have commented about the lack of modern opportunities in locales where coal mining is a large profession. Some experts believe workers should learn new skills or enter emerging industries such as solar and tech. Biden’s comment ignites an interesting question: can coal miners become successful programmers?

Decline of the Coal Industry

According to the Brookings Institute, there’s been a 40 percent decline in domestic coal-fired generation in the past decade. The causes behind the slump is due to many factors which includes environmental concern, global economics, and new technologies and methods. The accumulation of greenhouse gases has simmered on the minds of a many people, motivating bureaucrats and lawmakers to implement policies that limit coal production. California cities with ports have implemented measures to limit coal imports and exports, previous President Obama imposed carbon limits on new and existing coal-fired plants, and Mid-West states are fighting hard to undo EPA carbon mandates and coal-mining safety measures. Flat electricity demand plus low global demand for U.S. coal exports contribute to the decline of domestic coal-mining. Inexpensive energy sources such as natural gas and renewable technologies have worked to increase the slump of domestic coal production.

Employment decline is a result of these trends. Despite President Trump’s 2016 campaign promises to revitalize the coal industry, the latest 2018 workforce statistics for coal mining points to a -1.3% growth rate for the industry over the next 10 years. The number of employees working in the industry has declined by 30,000—starting with around 85,000 workers in 2009 and declining to just over 50,000 in 2019 (source: BLS.gov). Workers in the industry still deal with the health hazards of black lungs, and then there are pollution concerns—making employment less attractive among millennials. Renewable energy jobs such as solar installers and wind turbine technicians, and software developers, are included in a list of fast-growing jobs among millennials.

Makeup of Coal Industry Workers

Since we’ve detailed why there’s a decline in coal-mining, let’s look at industry roles which might be affected. The basis of these roles’ sizes is based on data from Datausa.io.

The biggest categories of workers are machine operators and front-line supervisors. Together they make up around 55% of the workforce. They use the equipment to dig for coal and supervisors oversee all employee efforts—scheduling, managing tasks, enforcing company policies, and reporting to higher management. Around 11% of the workforce is composed of technicians and electricians, while 2% are made of engineers and welders. The rest consist of management and administrative functions.

Can Coal Industry Workers Become Successful Programmers?

Programming isn’t just typing code; it involves utilizing logic and analytical capabilities to develop solutions by coding. Most of the time programmers don’t need to worry about having knowledge of complex mathematics, but they will be analyzing logical workflows. Troubleshooting skills are useful for debugging program code; comfort with reading highly technical documentation is useful for researching code functions and new programming languages; working within specifications and best practices prepare programmers to work within frameworks, such as MVC.

The coal-mining industry has job roles which can be good fits for programming.

The largest groups with potential programming employees are technicians and electricians. They primarily engage in diagnosing problems, using equipment to debug components, and utilizing creative solutions to solve technical issues, along with regularly documenting their efforts.

Other groups with potential are engineers and welders. This group is accustomed to developing and working within specifications plus understanding highly technical documentation. And using their analytical prowess.

Conclusion

Joe Biden’s comments are based on facts about the decline of domestic coal production and employment. Fueling fire to existing debates about the future direction of coal miners. Programming is a trending career path and its understandable when commenters suggest that coal miners turn toward that path. However, programming is not a straight-forward topic and it requires particular skillsets—not present in a majority of coal mine workers but most likely existing within individuals working job roles such as technicians, electricians, engineers, and welders.