Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Mining college students, creating old counties 

One article I meant to write up last week was from Thursday's Wall Street Journal (subscriber link) on college students from the Iron Range getting summer jobs in the mines now. The reason is China.
For generations, summer mining jobs have helped young men and women buy their first cars, make down payments on houses, and start their careers as miners.

But though the mines are blasting away this summer, rattling windows and lifting spirits, this year's students aren't like their parents or grandparents. Many don't plan to stick around past summer. Instead, they're putting their earnings toward college tuition so they can leave the northern Minnesota region known as the Iron Range.

"I never really considered this for a career. That's why I'm going to college," says Nikki McLellan, 23 years old, who's toiling in the mines now but plans to return for her senior year at the University of Wisconsin in Superior come Labor Day.

Their parents, for the most part, are happy about it. "I think the fathers are telling their sons to run for it," says Todd Frey, a miner, whose 19-year-old son Bryan also has a summer job in the mines.

The problem is similar to that facing many rural communities: Young men and women are moving to the cities and suburbs in search of high-paying jobs, leaving their small hometowns smaller. What makes the Iron Range so striking is that youths here have a viable choice -- yet they're choosing to get out anyway.

The current boom here is genuine, brought on by China's voracious appetite for steel, whose main ingredient is iron ore. Mining companies have not only reopened for business, they're also investing heavily in expensive new equipment that makes their operations more efficient. Dozens of small companies that contract with the mines to provide maintenance and supplies are cashing in, too.

Yet even the most optimistic don't expect the prosperity to continue for more than three or four years. Chinese demand could slip, they say, or Brazilian mines might start sending iron ore to the U.S. at prices low enough to compete with the Iron Range's taconite. Steel prices have fallen about 50% in the past nine months for the most common product, hot-rolled coils used for everything from appliances to cars.
So meanwhile the kids get the best-paying summer jobs around. My father talks of working on a railroad line while in high school because it paid well. Now it's mining, an area where there used to be many jobs that lasted a lifetime.
Following in his own father's path, Galen Holewa, 45, has worked in the mines since he was 18, a career fraught with uncertainty. So many miners were unemployed in the mid-1980s that Mr. Holewa had to start off as a carpenter in his church. When the mines reopened, he got a job, only to get laid off and rehired again.

Nathan, a senior in engineering at the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, still remembers when his father was laid off from the mines. "I remember drinking powdered milk a lot."

"Best powdered milk there was," says his dad.

In case they haven't learned from his own experience, Mr. Holewa says he repeatedly tells his children not to work in the mines. "I love my children," he says, "but there's no future for them here."

Nathan agrees. With one year of school left, the aspiring engineer, who lives on campus with his wife and daughter, plans to use the $12,000 he expects to earn this summer to pay off credit-card debt. After college, he plans to move his family where he can find a job, but probably not in the mines.

A generation ago, 23-year-olds like Nathan and his peers would have been rooted by now in the local work force. They would have been paying rent and buying cars and starting families.

"Actually, I want to be a doctor," says 18-year-old Dana Hilde as she walks in the door of her parents' house after a day of work. Her face is covered in black dust, her shoulders as limp as the loose strands of orange hair framing her face. She slumps in a chair and opens a can of soda.

Her father, 51-year-old Lynn Hilde, who has worked the mines for 29 years, is pushing his daughter to work Saturdays and take all the overtime she can get, but only so she makes enough money to pay for next year's tuition at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minn. "It's not bad," Dana Hilde says of the work, "but it's not what I want to do."

The departure of young people is palpable across the Iron Range.

"You go to the Rotary and Elks clubs and the young kids are 50 years old," says Bill Spang, 54, the president and chief executive of First National Bank in Buehl and Mountain Iron.
If you look at the median age of Minnesota counties between the 1990 and 2000 census, the biggest increases have been all up north (Lake of the Woods, Koochiching, Cook, Itasca.) Oldest counties include Cook and Aitkin, both in that area. Youngest counties include the three counties of the St. Cloud area (Benton, Sherburne and Stearns.)