All over eastern Kentucky, you see cars and pickup trucks with black license plates proclaiming the owner is a “friend of coal.”
Even though the license plates are all over, it’s getting harder to find actual coal miners here: Fewer than 6,000 remain in the state, where the coal industry is shrinking fast. More than 10,000 coal workers have been laid off since 2008.
Many have had to leave the area to find work, but a few have found employment in other — and sometime unexpected — fields, as businesses are innovating to use former coal workers in new ways.
Rusty Justice’s company is one of these.
“The realization I had was that the coal miner, although we think of him as a person who gets dirty and works with his hands, really coal mines today are very sophisticated, and they use a lot of technology, a lot of robotics,” says Justice, who has worked in the coal industry all his life.