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For Young Workers In Central Appalachia Job Options Are Slim


President Trump has promised to bring back coal. But the chances of a young person in central Appalachia getting a job in coal are still pretty slim. That's even though there has been a spike in the price of metallurgical coal, the kind that's used to make steel. That spike has resulted in a few more coal jobs. For the Embedded podcast, Kelly McEvers and Chris Benderev spent a year and a half following several young people in the region who, once they decided not to work in coal, faced some very hard choices. Here is the story of one of them.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: When we went to central Appalachia, we always stayed at this one hotel in Buchanan County, Va. And that's where we first meet Brad Pennington in late 2016. Brad works the front desk.

BRAD PENNINGTON: Yeah. Well, I mean, lobby looks like it's a part of the "Golden Girls" set, so - yeah.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Brad's kind of darkly sarcastic but thoughtful. He tells us how fun it was to grow up here hunting and fishing and riding four-wheelers in the mountains. But he says being an adult here isn't easy.

When did you start to realize that fact?

PENNINGTON: You figure it out pretty quick. I applied for quite a few jobs senior year of high school, and only one I got was Walmart. And that was temp work through winter.

BENDEREV: After Walmart, Brad tried community college, then dropped out. Worked in a scrapyard after that, and then for a little while as a security guard at a coal mine. But then a guy died in the mine and Brad got spooked. And he heard layoffs were coming, so he quit. Brad's dad worked in coal, but he hurt his back doing it.

PENNINGTON: And he told me from the very beginning, just don't do it; just go somewhere else; do anything else.

BENDEREV: So Brad got this hotel job. At this point, he works the night shift, makes $8 an hour. He lives at home with his parents. He's single. And most of his high school friends have left the county.

PENNINGTON: There's just - there's nothing here in Buchanan County. It's slowly dying.

BENDEREV: How does that feel?

PENNINGTON: Oh, it scares the [expletive] out of you, if you don't mind me saying that. I mean, it really does. I mean, if you got fired tomorrow or quit tomorrow, there's absolutely no opportunity to get another one. I mean, you're fighting 50 other people on a list a mile long to get a minimum-wage job anymore. I mean, you get a job, you keep it because you know you got to.

BENDEREV: But even if there are more coal jobs now in his hometown, Brad thinks that this upturn in metallurgical coal is just a blip in the boom and bust cycle. He doesn't agree with his friends and relatives who think that coal is going to make some big comeback.

PENNINGTON: It is a dying industry. And you can't keep propping it up and hoping for it to last forever because it won't. And they know that, but they don't care. They just want it to work right here, right now so they can live happy and have their money and whatever. And they would rather save 50 jobs for five years versus create 500 jobs in 10 years. You know, it's - there are just a lot of hard-headed people around here that hear we're going to bring back coal, and they're all for it.

BENDEREV: So Brad thinks that at this point, the best thing that he can do is to leave this job, this county - the whole thing.

MCEVERS: And eventually he does leave. He gets a better-paying job delivering Pepsi to gas stations and grocery stores, and he gets an apartment about an hour away. He calls and texts to tell us how he's doing. But then a year after we first meet him this past spring, we go back to the hotel, and we're surprised. Standing there again at the front desk wearing the same corporate light blue polo shirt he was wearing when we met him is Brad. And he's not looking happy.

So what happened at Pepsi? Like, what happened?

PENNINGTON: My direct supervisor...

MCEVERS: Brad says he and his boss did not get along. Boss would criticize little mistakes, things Brad didn't think should be a big deal. But...

PENNINGTON: With me it was a fireable offense, you know?

BENDEREV: Finally, Brad's boss called him into the office and told him that he was fired. And Brad panicked because he still had to pay rent and heat and water and gas and cable and Internet and food for the kitten that he just adopted with his girlfriend. He needed a job immediately. So after getting fired, he called up the hotel. And even though it is a place that he does not want to work, he asked for his job back.

PENNINGTON: I got fired on a Tuesday, and by Tuesday night I was working here. I'd go to Walmart and work if I knew I could pull enough hours to cover my bills. But that's the problem with Walmart. There's no guarantee you're going to pull 20 hours, let alone 36 hours. I'm not going to work under that uncertainty. I got too many bills to pay.

MCEVERS: And did you have to take a pay cut to come back here?

PENNINGTON: Oh, big time. I make less now than I did when I quit because I quit and came back.

MCEVERS: Brad is making less than he was when we first met him a year ago, and he's doing the same job. His girlfriend, who works at a supermarket, pays for groceries.

PENNINGTON: Because I can never afford it. You know, I'm tapped out paying the rent and my truck payments. And then I buy gas for both our cars.

MCEVERS: So - and that's - so you can cover all of that stuff, like you said. And...

PENNINGTON: Well, it's the skin of our teeth, basically. I mean, it's getting tough...

MCEVERS: Really?

PENNINGTON: ...To this point. Yeah.

MCEVERS: Are there - have there been times recently when you really worried?

PENNINGTON: Oh, yeah, a lot of times.

MCEVERS: What does that feel like or sound like or look like or...

PENNINGTON: It's not fun. It's not fun.

MCEVERS: I'm sorry.

PENNINGTON: I'm OK. I just don't want you thinking about - it just is - it's tough. I mean, I make less than $8 an hour here, so...

MCEVERS: Oh, less than.

PENNINGTON: And that kind of stuff just gets to me. I mean, I was on my own. I was doing good, which - I still am, but not as good.

BENDEREV: Over the next few months, Brad spends his time searching and sometimes interviewing for better jobs - meter reader at the power company, cable guy. Those didn't work out. But then this one did.

PENNINGTON: Thank you for calling. This is Brad. May I get the account number or the phone number you're contacting us about today?

BENDEREV: It's at a call center. And it pays 10.25 an hour, which is more than the hotel.

MCEVERS: Call center jobs are the kinds of jobs people in the area like to point to as a possible replacement for coal jobs. This job pays a lot less than coal. It's enough to get by, but it's not enough for Brad to move away, maybe go to college and have a better life. For Embedded, I'm Kelly McEvers.

BENDEREV: And I'm Chris Benderev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Benderev is a founding producer of and also reports stories for NPR's documentary-style podcast, Embedded. He's driven into coal mines, watched as a town had to shutter its only public school after 100 years in operation, and, recently, he's followed the survivors of a mass shooting for two years to understand what happens after they fade from the news. He's also investigated the pseudoscience behind a national chain of autism treatment facilities. As a producer, he's made stories about ISIS, voting rights and Donald Trump's business history. Earlier in his career, he was a producer at NPR's Weekend Edition, Morning Edition, Hidden Brain and the TED Radio Hour.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.