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Mining by machine: Automation hits coal industry

Anupam Nath / AP

If you want to work in coal, forget using a shovel. As Bloomberg's Tim Loh writes: "Coal…executives are starting to search for workers who can crunch gigabytes of data or use a joystick to maneuver mining vehicles hundreds of miles away."

The coal industry's workforce composition is increasingly going to be skilled workers, and overall hiring is likely to dip. As Heath Lovell, a spokesman for coal producer Alliance Resource Partners LP, puts it: "Whether coal comes back or not is not necessarily directly related to jobs," since as tech makes the industry more efficient it will be able to produce the same amount with fewer employees.

  • To get a sense of how successful the coal industry is going forward, look to production levels, not hiring. Remaining competitive, particularly with natural gas, likely means cutting labor.
  • The tech now: The machines that are likely to displace workers in the next 10 to 15 years include the longwall machine (which cuts coal in mile-long strips without many employees), joysticks to mine by remote control (with the help of videos, sensors, and positioning software), autonomous haul loaders, autonomous trucks, autonomous long-haul trains, semi-autonomous crushers and more. Read more, via the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
  • Likely Impacts: Accenture predicted in 2010 that employing autonomous tech in open pit mines would reduce employment by 75%. Miners, drivers, and maintainers will see more layoffs, per ComputerWorld. It is also likely that the introduction of automation will reduce fuel consumption and spending but also lost tax revenue, IISD claims.
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