Coal’s share of the nation’s electricity is declining. But schools are still graduating mining engineers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the job outlook is growing at an average pace. And in Kentucky, there are more students studying mining engineering than ever before in the program’s history.
Why? The simple answer is that the department is placing less of an emphasis on coal.
There are 215 undergraduates in UK’s Department of Mining Engineering this year. A decade ago, there were fewer than 25. And the program boasts a 100 percent employment rate after graduation.
Program chair Rick Honaker says over the past few years, the College of Engineering has made a conscious decision to diversify the mining engineering department’s academic curriculum.
“Today’s academic departments can’t survive on large cyclical swings like the coal industry goes through, that we have to diversify and make sure that the graduates we produce are able to find job opportunities in the broad mining industry,” he said.
Honaker says there will be a need for coal mining engineers in the foreseeable future, both in the U.S. and overseas, especially as a lot of the workforce retires. But the industry isn’t as big as it once was. So the university has put more resources into making sure graduates can work in any kind of mines.
That means training people to engineer gold, phosphate, lead and zinc mining, among others. And mining engineers are also necessary to produce the materials used in renewable energy sources.
“You know, we’re involved in mining engineers going to work in mining yttrium and all the rare earth materials that are needed to create solar panels and battery storage elements and stuff like that,” Honaker said.
And as mining engineers like to point out—the raw materials humans rely on can either be grown or mined. So even if UK’s graduates aren’t looking for jobs in the Kentucky coalfields, it’s likely there will be work somewhere else.