Southwest Virginia economies continue to reel from declines in coal production and employment. 

Against this backdrop, communities can seize opportunities to better support and retrain displaced coal mine workers in an industry where jobs fell to a record low of less than 4,000 in 2014, a Virginia Tech workforce study says.

"It's important that we don't throw displaced miners on the scrap heap," said John Provo, director of the Office of Economic Development. "They have marketable skills and opportunities."

The study found that many coal industry workers possess skills in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math.

"These competencies are highly compatible with many manufacturing jobs in areas such as the manufacturing of plastics, rubber, and metals," said Scott Tate, senior economic development specialist in Virginia Tech's Office of Economic Development and the study's primary author. "Other relevant fields include recycling and biomass as well as advanced machining."

The study analyzed top occupations in the region, a basis for local government leaders and the region's workforce entities to "recognize transferrable skills and address worker skill gaps," Tate said. The region includes seven counties and is covered by the Southwest Virginia Workforce Investment Board Area One.

Coal industry workers are part of Southwest Virginia's sizable "middle skill" workforce, able to perform jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree yet pay higher wages than jobs typically available to those with less than a four years of college.

The Southwest Virginia Workforce Investment Board commissioned the study, which analyzed more than 100 occupations.

Darrell Blankenship, Southwest Virginia Workforce Investment Board Area One’s executive director, says, "This study helps us better understand the skills of our workers and how some skills can be developed to help them transfer to related occupations." 

The study recommends:

  • Use data to address competency gaps. Gaps in basic skills limit employment options for transitioning workers. Workers with high levels of competency in science or technology, for example, may possess lower levels of competency in "soft skills" such as communication, customer service, administration, and writing.
  • Support growth of manufacturing, health care, tourism, and the professional, scientific and technical industries through training and recertification incentives. In varying degrees, these areas hold promise for boosting the regional economy based on industry concentration, growth potential, or occupation earning levels.   
  • Continue to develop innovative training and certification. Community colleges and other training institutions offer programs, but more models and delivery methods must be added to reach a larger labor pool. For example, workers with coal industry-related technical skills may lack formal certifications or credentials that new employers may require.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.