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College graduates heading to careers in ... the coal mines

With many miners approaching retirement, the industry is trying to attract young talent.

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When Joshua Hoffman's parents, a computer scientist and law-enforcement officer, sent their son to the University of Missouri at Rolla (UMR), a coal mine was probably the last place they imagined higher education taking their son.

Yet, as an explosives engineering major, Mr. Hoffman is now excited to don a hard hat and pursue the black rock. His parents, however, are less than enthused.

"My dad was, like, isn't [coal mining] horrible?" recounts Hoffman. It took some convincing, but he managed to persuade his parents that mining has evolved past pickaxes and black lung and is increasingly a smart career for well-educated individuals.

For decades, coal mining was a risky career path, less because of the physical dangers and more so because of fleeting job security. While college students previously avoided mining as a course of study, now, thanks to the coal boom and the industry's growing need for college-educated engineers, mining has become a career that more young people are going to college to pursue, rather than to escape.

"Throughout the '80s and the biggest part of the '90s, we steered our youth away from mining because we were in a period of austerity," says Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. Now, many West Virginians are no longer discouraging their children from a career in the mining sector.

Though Adam Patterson's family has mined coal in the mountain state for seven generations, when he started school at West Virginia University (WVU) he was uncertain if he'd continue in their footsteps. "But when I got here and saw the opportunities that were available, it became apparent that it was something I really wanted to do," says Mr. Patterson, now a junior majoring in mining engineering.

The number of mining jobs in West Virginia, the second-largest coal producer in the United States, jumped 38 percent between 2003 and 2006. And because of looming retirements, demand for new workers looks strong for years to come.

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