A bumpy ride, the smell of coal, and the steady bleep of radio communications: "Shovel 20? Over."... "Shovel 20 ready for power. Over."... "Go ahead! Over."
That's the scene for electricians at Thunder Basin Coal Company at the Black Thunder Mine in Wright, WY. It's a scene that Dan Watson hopes to make his career after graduation in 2015. Watson is a second-year Electrical Trades student at WDT who is participating in the Thunder Basin Coal Electrical Co-Op Program. The program provides a path to employment and financial assistance for students while filling the need for electricians at the mine.
"Our main problem right now is finding qualified electricians," said Black Thunder Mine Electrical Superintendent Rick Crouse. "That's the best way to end up with a qualified electrician. You don't get as much bang for your buck as you do with the coop program."
Crouse says the program started at least 10 years ago and has been successful ever since. Students interested in the program must be 18 years of age and planning to attend an electrician program at a technical school. The student begins working at the mine the summer before classes start, with a starting wage of $21.75 per hour. Once classes begin, students need to put in a few hours per week dependent on their class load. With one semester under their belts, the students must bring proof of grades to Thunder Basin. If they have a C average or better, the coal company will pay for tuition.
This is the arrangement for the entirety of each student's electrical program. They focus on classes, put in time at the mine when possible, and receive financial assistance as long as they are showing successful grades. After graduation, the student is required to take the Federal Electrical Card Test. If they pass and there is a position open at the mine, Thunder Basin has the option to offer the student a position with an automatic wage increase. If a position is offered, the student is not required to take it but must pay back tuition if they turn it down. If no position is offered, the student is not required to pay back tuition. There are currently three WDT graduates working at the mine.
Aside from the opportunity to help finance schooling, the program also offers students hands-on training with highly qualified electricians and an immediate career path after graduation.
"Our primary objective is to get them trained. They are working with a certified electrician the whole time," said Crouse.
Watson is impressed with the experienced electricians he works with.
"There are electrical maintenance coal miners that have been there for 30-35 years," said Watson.
Watson says he enjoys the hands-on experience under the supervision of highly qualified engineers at the mine. He's still in his first year, but a lot of his classes focus on residential electrical work, and he enjoys the variety and sense of accomplishment the mine provides.
"I get more hands-on experience with the industrial side of electrical trades, more troubleshooting," said Watson. "I feel accomplished at the end of the day, knowing I fixed something and helped make it easier to mine coal."
Electrical work at a coal mine isn't for everyone, and both Crouse and Watson admit it takes a special kind of person who doesn't mind getting dirty to be successful in this industry.
"If they don't mind getting dirty, I'd recommend to go try it, as long as you're safe," said Watson.
Electricians at the mine work with extremely high-voltage equipment, which makes safety and training key. There are currently more than sixty electricians working at the mine, but Crouse said ideally they would employ more than seventy. The mine operates multiple draglines, power shovels, and load trucks around the clock. The electricians work on power distribution, troubleshooting, and preventative maintenance for all the electrical machinery at the mine.
Crouse says it can cost the company more than $20,000 per hour if a machine is down, so having well trained electricians on staff is crucial.
It takes time to learn the workings of such a huge operation, but students who complete the coop program are usually ready to start working on their own immediately after graduation.
"We end up with a fairly well-trained electrician," said Crouse.
That's exactly what the mine needs. Students end up with very little educational debt and a career with high earning potential immediately upon graduation. For those who fit the program, it's a pretty good situation.
Students interested in the Thunder Basin Coal Electrical Co-Op Program can contact the WDT Admissions Department at firstname.lastname@example.org or 605-394-4034.