Valuable work experience can last a lifetime

In August 2011, Carol and I spent the night in Scranton, PA. We were on our way home after a wonderful week in Maine and a short trip to see my daughter’s family in Massachusetts. As is our habit, we surveyed the available local tourist material and found an old anthracite mine, which is now a tourist destination.

The site is called the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train. The Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company operated this mine from 1911 to 1931. In May of 1963, the mine was retimbered and reopened as a tourist attraction. Each year, over 40,000 people visit the mine, which was listed in 1979 as one of the top ten tourist attractions in Pennsylvania.

When coal was found in the area during the early 1800s, they dug pits from the surface to retrieve the vertical veins of coal. Eventually, the miners learned to drive horizontal tunnels through the hard rock to reach the coal seams. At present, the mine is inspected daily by a mine foreman and periodically by state mine inspectors.

Carol and I boarded the open mine car pushed by an electric mine motor. About twenty people joined us on the tour. As the mine car passed quickly under the stone roof, I heard the familiar clicking of rail splices and felt the temperature drop to the 50s. These experiences mimicked those I experienced as a bituminous coal miner for nine years.

Once we traveled the 1,800 feet to the mine work area, we disembarked the mine car and followed the guide to where the miners once toiled. The anthracite mining process involved working from the bottom of the seam upward, drilling and blasting the coal and then repeating the process while standing on the freshly loosened coal. Periodically, the chutes were opened and coal fell to be shoveled into coal cars and hauled outside.

During the period this mine was operating, children as young as six were commonly employed as slate pickers, door boys and mule drivers. According to a report by Owen Lovejoy, the assistant secretary of the National Child Labor Committee in 1905, about 10 percent of the miners were under 16 years of age. Also, 75 percent of the slate pickers who died in mining accidents were under 16. Those who survived experienced daily bloody hands and sometimes lost limbs.

Child labor in the 1900s was illegal but family necessity forced these young boys, many of whom were immigrants, to lie about their age. Mine owners and supervisors knowingly turned a blind eye to the practice of hiring underage miners.

Fortunately, child labor laws are more stringently enforced in our most dangerous industries today. When I was a child I worked on our farm and those of many neighboring farmers. Although I was at risk occasionally, I learned a lot through the hard work. It is obvious that some types of work are unacceptable for children. The task of parents and leaders is to keep children safe but give them valuable work experiences at the same time. The lessons learned will last a lifetime.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “And my Brother Jack: Everyday Leadership Lessons,” visit his website raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.

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