Last week, The Australia Institute released a report that investigated the challenges and opportunities of getting out of coal. This included casting a critical eye on the apparent abundance of employment opportunities afforded by the coal mining sector – a factor that’s frequently cited as a reason to keep the industry afloat.
Based on the most conservative reading of Australian Bureau of Statistics data, as of August 2019 the coal mining sector employed about 46,000 people, with about 20,000 to 25,000 in thermal coal (the remained in metallurgical coal).
To drill down further on these figures, the report asserts that only around 5000 are employed in roles that are specific and unique to producing thermal coal and/or mining in general. The remainder are managerial, professional and clerical white collar professions, or trade occupations such as truck driving and carpentry – all easily transitioned to other industries.
Looking at these figures, there’s not astounding numbers of people to retrain and, as the report points out, a plethora of options to fairly and justly do so.
Perhaps the most obvious is the just under 20,000 jobs in renewable energy activities at present, set to at least double if the energy sector is to be decarbonised.
The report recognises, however, that renewables offer a “modest but welcome” growth in Australia’s overall employment in coming years, but that “they are not essential for imagining that affected thermal coal workers can successfully adjust to this inevitable change”.
Other options are incentives for early retirement of what is an ageing workforce, with the average age of mining workers in Australia almost 42 years in 2018 (significantly older than the overall workforce average of 39.8 years).
If adopted, such a policy would afford younger workers more time to stay employed in coal for longer and give them more time to consider new opportunities, the report states.
The report is also critical on the use of “indirect employment” typically used to bolster thermal coal employment numbers, suggesting that it’s only in “very special cases”, such as that of suppliers of specialised equipment, indirect employment is not relevant in the transition from coal.
“All industries buy inputs from other industries, and all workers, wherever they are employed, create jobs through their expenditure.
“If jobs in one industry are replaced by jobs in another, the number of indirect jobs is unlikely to change much.”
The report also looks at diminishing “social benefits” of coal jobs, with wage payments (still relatively generous at an average of $130,000 per year) on the decline, despite the relatively enormous revenues generated by the industry.
“That means that the social benefits of coal jobs are diminished, with a growing share of total wealth generated in the industry going to the industry’s (often offshore) owners.”
Coal mining communities are also no longer what they used to be thanks to FIFO (Fly In, Fly Out) where workers do long stints on site and the fly home to their homes in cites or near the coast.
The model has almost entirely displaced the older mode of mine development where small town would be built for miners to live with their families, and many mining companies insist on a FIFO-only arrangement. As such, the Australian coal mining community industry is an endangered species.
And while FIFO workers are compensated financially for the long hours and high stress of this model, it’s been associated with adverse effects including fatigue from long shifts, family breakdown, a higher risk of family violence, and mental health problems.