Friday, July 14, 2017

In one county, many non-coal jobs link to coal, but seeds of a more diverse economy are there

A new coal mine in western Pennsylvania is generating an estimated 70 jobs, but locals say that's not enough. Somerset County, which made news in 2002 when nine coal miners were rescued from several hundred feet underground after being trapped for four days, has a population of about 77,000 and voted overwhelmingly for President Trump. NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed workers and employers in Somerset County to see how they make a living and what else they think Appalachia needs in order to attract opportunity.

Somerset County, Pennsylvania
Many locals work in tourism. Terry Smith was a miner for 25 years and says he would love to do it again if he could. But he developed black lung and now manages the bowling lane at a nearby ski resort. People have mined here for generations but even if the coal industry expanded again, modern mines employ far fewer people than they used to.  And "Somerset County has other employers in bigger industries where President Trump's influence is much less certain."

The medical sector is a large source of local jobs. One firm makes devices to help people with sleep apnea or black lung. Jeremy Rogers moved to Somerset County in his 30s to work there, and says they're a union shop employing about 300 people. Somerset Hospital, meanwhile, employs 900. CEO Craig Saylor says "We have a largely senior community that does not want or cannot travel." Inskeep reports up to 80 percent of the patients here rely on Medicare or Medicaid, and "The hospital could be affected by a Republican health bill that would restrain Medicaid spending." Saylor worries about the impact of Medicaid cuts on local employees: "Ultimately, someone has to either take a pay cut or, in the case of hospitals, absorb that loss of care."

Some locals work in the expanding field of renewable energy. Erik Widner, 28, oversees a wind farm with 68 turbines spread out over two mountain ridges near the town of Berlin. He's a Somerset County native who came back after college to work at the wind farm. "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," Widner told Inskeep.

The owner of auto repair shop Barron Trucking says some employers would love to hire more, but are having a hard time finding qualified workers. "Trying to find a blue-collar worker in this area that can pass a drug test is the biggest challenge," says Jim Barron, and estimates that eight out of 10 applicants would fail a drug test. He acknowledges that auto repair is hard work and that "the pay does not justify the hours that you put in." The lack of high-paying jobs and economic development means that many qualified workers leave to find jobs elsewhere. "You've got to go where the jobs are," says Barron. "The only thing that has moved to Somerset is fast food."

"One thing we saw in the rural economy was possibility," reports Inskeep, a graduate of Morehead State University near the Appalachian coalfield. "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."

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