By Chris Benderev
July 5, 2018 - The global price of metallurgical coal, the kind that's used to make steel, has been going up for the past couple years. That means, after years of decline, there are a few more jobs in the coal counties of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. But most experts agree coal is not going to make a big comeback as President Trump has promised. For NPR's Embedded podcast, Kelly McEvers and Chris Benderev spent about a year and a half going to these counties. They met one young man who did not want to give up on coal.
KELLY MCEVERS: We first meet Kyle Johnson in summer 2017 in a mine safety training class.
CHRIS BENDEREV: On a break from the class, I ride with Kyle to lunch.
KYLE JOHNSON: Get these safety glasses out of the way.
BENDEREV: Kyle already dresses like a coal miner even though he's not one yet - baggy navy work pants with reflective stripes down the sides. And he tells me that he wanted to work in a mine ever since he visited one when he was younger.
JOHNSON: And I thought - well, this is what I want to do. I've been hooked ever since. But I guess I was just born at the wrong time.
BENDEREV: It was the wrong time because when he first tried to get a mining job, it was 2015, and the industry was at its lowest point in decades. But now he's got this sense that things might be improving. So he's taking this class.
Do you have a lot of friends who've gotten training?
JOHNSON: Not really. Most of them think it's a lost cause nowadays, I guess. Now...
BENDEREV: What do they say to you?
JOHNSON: They just think I'm crazy. And like, they think I need to, you know, go to school and all that stuff.
BENDEREV: Kyle did try going to college. I talked to Isaiah Thomas (ph), who went to college with Kyle and has known him since they were kids. And he says Kyle was just obsessed with coal.
ISAIAH THOMAS: We would be in school, and we would go to the computer lab. And I would be sitting there doing my classwork and look over and Kyle is watching "Coal."
BENDEREV: It was a show on the Discovery Channel.
THOMAS: (Laughter) It ran for, like, one season.
THOMAS: Kyle, he watched that show all the time. Like, he'd just be sitting there. I'm like, do you have school work to do? He's like yeah, I've got a couple of things I probably should do. And then he'd go right back to watching "Coal." That's all he ever did.
BENDEREV: Isaiah finished college, got a business administration degree. But Kyle dropped out. He joined the Marines, then the Reserves. Now he does landscaping. The way Kyle found out about this recent upturn in metallurgical coal was one day, in his truck, he heard something.
JOHNSON: I heard an advertisement on the radio to hire for coal miner jobs, and I hadn't heard that in years.
JOHNSON: It's indescribable. It's just like, you know, something's happening, and it's finally good.
MCEVERS: Kyle applies to the company from the ad - and to a bunch of other companies - and then just gets in his Dodge Ram and starts driving around the coal counties in southwest Virginia with a stack of resumes.
JOHNSON: I drive around Buchanan County about 10 hours a day about once or twice a week looking for jobs. And then I come to Dickenson and Wise, wherever - ask people who they know and everything.
MCEVERS: There might be a little more hiring these days, but there are also a lot of experienced coal miners ready to fill open jobs. Isaiah, who has a job in sales and works in an office, thinks Kyle's plan is hopeless. Honestly, he thinks us following Kyle is hopeless, too.
THOMAS: He said, yeah, some guy from NPR wants to interview you on my job hunt. And I said, well, good luck to that guy 'cause you're not going to get a job (laughter).
MCEVERS: For Kyle, it's not just about getting a job. It's about this thing that he wants to be true - that you can graduate from high school, then make decent money and live a good life. And where he lives, central Appalachia, the way to do that has been coal.
BENDEREV: And then in the fall 2017, after months of trying, Kyle finally has some news.
JOHNSON: I got a job.
JOHNSON: Yeah. So (laughter) there's that.
BENDEREV: Kyle is happier than I've ever heard him.
JOHNSON: I was like, it's about time something happened (laughter).
BENDEREV: Right after he got the offer, Kyle called his best friend Isaiah.
THOMAS: The first thing he said to me - he says, I did it. I got me a job, and I'm working. And I said - oh, well, I guess I was a little bit wrong on that one. And he goes, no, you were way wrong, Isaiah.
BENDEREV: I ask Isaiah if he's been tempted by coal, too.
THOMAS: Oh, absolutely. Everybody's had that thought - when you see guys that are making $30 an hour in an area that 15 is the norm, I mean - and not go and get $30,000 in student debt but instead make $30,000 in half a year of coal mining.
BENDEREV: But then what do you think next that made you not do that?
THOMAS: Coal mining is a turbulent, turbulent occupation. And it's dangerous. And it's dirty. I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone that coal mines, but I've just always been speculative with Kyle about - you know, it's not a prosperous future as far as, you know, job security goes. But he's going to do what he wants to do.
MCEVERS: A few more months go by. And at one point, it's spring 2018. It's 4:30 in the afternoon, and Kyle just woke up.
MCEVERS: Kyle has been working the night shift at a coal mine, and you can tell. His face is pale. His eyes look tired. He says he's lost 20 pounds. The work is hard. Still, Kyle is really into being a coal miner. He's finally living like he's on that Discovery Channel TV show.
JOHNSON: I mean, I love it. I do.
MCEVERS: But Kyle, probably the one person we met during our time in central Appalachia who was most excited about coal, says he's not totally sure what's going to happen in the long term. Like, 20, 30 years from now...
JOHNSON: I got no clue. By then, definitely all your good coal will be gone. And you're going to have to go a lot farther back in the mountain and spend a lot more money just to get it out. I really hope it's still around. All I can do is see, I guess.
BENDEREV: I ask Isaiah what he thinks will happen to Kyle if coal doesn't last. And he says Kyle will probably be able to find something else.
THOMAS: What scares me - there's a whole workforce of people that, if coal actually did ever just up and leave, there would be an entire area of people that couldn't do other things. That's what makes me the saddest is, you know?
And it's easy for people around the country and around the world to talk about where we're from, hear our accent and automatically assume they're unintelligent. They're not unintelligent people. They're extremely intelligent. But they weren't afforded the opportunities of other people to understand different things. So they've known this one thing their whole life, and it up and leaves. Well, what else are they going to do?
BENDEREV: Later, around 9:15 that night, Kyle's driving away from his apartment. He's changed into his starched new uniform with an embroidered nametag and those reflective orange stripes down the side.
BENDEREV: We pull up to the mine. Kyle tells me he's going to walk up to the shed that's their locker room. He'll put on his headlamp, his boots. And the guys will all gather around and pray.
What is the prayer usually like?
JOHNSON: We've got a boy named Eric who does it every night - just keep us all safe, you know; watch out for all the other shifts and let us be safe, productive; no one get hurt, really; let us make it all back home to our families.
BENDEREV: In the morning - actually, most mornings - Kyle gets out of the mine, gets into his truck and calls his mom. They only talk for a few minutes, just enough time for Kyle to tell her that he made it out OK - again.
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