By Dennis Pillion
August 3, 2018 - Though it was more than 43 years ago, Gerald Kimes can tell you without batting an eye, the exact date he first went underground to work in an Alabama coal mine.
For 15 new miners, who graduated from a four-week underground mine safety course at Bevill State Community College Thursday, their first day below the surface will be Friday August 3, 2018.
The 15 graduates are the first class of a program designed by Bevill State in coordination with Warrior Met Coal, a relatively new company comprised of many of the largest creditors of Walter Energy when that company filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
Warrior Met Coal paid the future miners a $600 weekly stipend while they completed the course, and there will be a full-time job waiting for them at Warrior's Brookwood Mine No. 4 or No. 7 the day after they graduate.
Patrick Cagle, president of the Alabama Coal Association, said those jobs will have an average salary of $85,000, and multiple participants said the money was the biggest reason they signed up for the program.
"The starting pay is a lot better than anything we're going to find where we live," said Jared Cook, 23, of Berry, Ala.
Before taking the course at Bevill, Cook said he worked "on and off" clearing land for a pipeline in Georgia. He said he got the application for the program from a friend's father who works in the industry. He hopes his new career will offer some stability that his old jobs lacked.
"If I'm there for 30 years, I'd be okay with it," he said.
Cook said his biggest concerns about his new job were less about claustrophobia or dangers associated with underground mines, but whether he could get around in the tunnels with his 6'3" frame. Luckily for him, most mine tunnels are seven feet high or more, he said.
Terence Hinton, 30, of Tuscaloosa, said he left a good job on the line at the Mercedes plant to follow his uncle's footsteps 2,000 feet below the surface. For Hinton, the job represents a comfortable paycheck, but also a sense of excitement.
"This is something I've wanted to do ever since I was 18 years old, fresh out of high school," Hinton said. "I've always been a hard worker. I can't wait to get down there and get to it."
Hinton said he's not at all worried about the volatility that can come with mining jobs, as Walter and other have laid off workers in the past.
"I'm not worried about that at all," he said. "That can happen anywhere. If it's meant to be, it will be."
The work will be difficult, and it's not for everyone. At first, the new miners will be "ISL"s, or inside laborers as they learn the ins and outs of mining. After a year they can trade their green "rookie" hardhats for a black one, and potentially advance into other more specialized mine jobs. Electricians and mechanics are in high demand due to the amount of machinery operating in the underground mines.
"The best way to think of it is really high-tech, advanced machinery mines coal," Cagle said. "People operate that machinery, maintain it, fix it when it breaks, move it once they finish an area."
Federal regulations require coal miners have 40 hours of training before heading underground. The Bevill graduates will have 160 hours under their belt, focusing on a range of safety issues and using Bevill's on-campus simulated underground coal mine to practice tasks they will soon have to perform in an actual mine.
Warrior Met Coal chief administrative officer Kelli Gant said the program helps Warrior hire employees who are better prepared for the rigors of underground coal mining.
"We're going to have much better trained folks to enter the workforce," Gant said. "Instead of just a four-day course, they've had a full month of hands-on experience and they should be able to hit the ground running when they go to work tomorrow."
The course is led by four instructors who all have experience in underground mines, including Kimes, who led a media tour of the simulated coal mine Thursday.
"One of the reasons we partnered with Bevill is those instructors with all that experience," Gant said. "That's hundreds of years of experience in that room in there. Those guys have seen things that a lot of us will never see, and the fact that they're getting instruction from this quality of folks is really exciting for us."
Gant said the company plans to hire about 200 new miners through the Bevill State program over the next year, and may continue the arrangement beyond that to account for workforce turnover. Gant said the company had about 500 employees when it formed two years ago, and is up to about 1400 now.
Warrior Met Coal is a "pure play" in metallurgical coal, which means it mines only the high-grade coal used to make steel rather than the less expensive "thermal" coal that's burned to generate electricity.
All of Warrior's coal goes to steelmakers overseas, traveling through the port of Mobile, Gant said. The primary competition comes from coal mines in Australia.
"It's all driven by steel production, that's what our coal is used for," Gant said. "As long as people need steel, they're going to need met coal."
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