There are fewer coal miners than you might realize
Coal miners played an outsize role in the 2016 election. Along with manufacturing workers, coal miners came to broadly represent the plight of working-class white Americans, unfairly targeted by the administration of Barack Obama and buffeted by the vagaries of an unhelpful economy. Donald Trump even donned a hard hat at one rally in West Virginia, miming mining coal (with a shovel, for some reason).
But according to the most recent national data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were far fewer coal miners in the United States in May 2015 than many other job categories. (That data was released at the end of March 2016; estimates for mid-2016 will be released at the end of this month.)
How much so? Here, see how well you do on this quiz, measuring the number of coal mining extraction workers against a number of other categories.
So how many coal miners are there? In the most recent jobs report, the mining industry accounted for 183,300 jobs. But that includes a lot of mining unrelated to coal and a lot of support occupations, too: supervisors, truck drivers and so on. In May 2015, there were 69,460 jobs in coal mining itself — only 15,900 of which were extraction workers or helpers, mining machine operators or earth drillers.
That’s 0.019 percent of the American workforce that month.
The frustrating reality is that the industry has a number of strikes against it: the exhaustion of easy-to-access coal seams, the new focus on the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels, the low cost of natural gas thanks to fracking and increased automation. Coal miners are important parts of the economy and the cultural identity of certain states important to presidential politics, but there simply aren’t that many actual coal miners.
There are, for example, more ophthalmic laboratory technicians than people who actually mine coal. But at no point during the 2016 campaign did Trump ostentatiously don glasses.