The phase-out of the coal sector in the Hunter Valley will happen. The only real question is when? Will we be ready?
When Ansett went bust in 2001, over 10,000 workers were out the door in a flash. Follow-up studies show these workers suffered enormous financial grief. Re-entering the labour market was difficult for many.
In contrast, when the Newcastle steelworks closed in 1999, the Pathways initiative gave employees the chance to prepare for work after steel. Even then, many contractors slipped through the compensation and retraining net, while older workers drifted onto disability support programs as local blue-collar jobs evaporated.
Most shut downs aren't so orderly. In 2012, for instance, Kurri Kurri smelter workers lost their jobs without warning. Compensation and retraining packages never appeared. Is this what the Hunter's coal miners can expect: locked gates, no retraining, no alternative economic strategies, no environmental clean-ups, offshore employers devoid of assets?
The census tells us there were 11,600 workers in the Hunter mining sector in 2016. These are real workers with working years ahead of them, families to support, mortgages and superannuation to pay. Census detail gives us a handy insight into who will be affected by the shutdown of the coal sector.
A few observations can be gleaned. The first is that Hunter coal workers are a reasonably youthful bunch, at least compared to the ageing profiles of workers typically found in declining industrial sectors. Almost half (48 per cent) of Hunter coal workers are under 40 years of age.
When coal exits, these workers will need substantial career planning, and probably re-training. Many will need to sell their homes, uproot family, including a working spouse, to start life afresh somewhere else. Most likely, this will be in a coastal city. Housing costs will be a big issue. Social and cultural adjustments won't come easy...