Associate degree in mining offers opportunities to advance

Anthony Sable recently accepted the President Walker Award.

Anthony Sable, who is enrolled in the associates degree program for mining technology at Penn State Fayette, recently accepted the President Walker Award joined by his wife, Amanda, and son, Noah.

Credit: Photo provided

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After Shawn Bishoff finished high school in the mid-1990s, he headed straight for the Marines Corps, serving for four years. After that, he found a few odd jobs before wanting to settle down with stable work. He enrolled in the Apprentice Underground Miner “Red Hat” training program in West Virginia and became the first coal miner in his family, a line of work often passed down through generations.

Over the decades, he worked for a few companies, working his way up from general laborer to now a continuous miner coordinator with CONSOL Energy.

Just a few weeks ago, he added another feather in his red cap. He made the dean’s list at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus. Bishoff is among a crop of miners from the CONSOL looking to earn a two-year associate degree as they look to advance to senior leadership in a field that struggles to graduate the number of engineers needed to advance an industry that the federal government has deemed vital to domestic interests for a slew of areas that need rare earth elements and critical minerals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites about 400 mining engineers will be needed annually despite far fewer graduates joining the ranks.

“We are grateful for the strong partnership with CONSOL and having their employees on our campus as adult students,” said Charles Patrick, Penn State Fayette chancellor and chief academic officer. “These students are doing very well in our classes with the added benefit of them engaging with our younger students in positive ways.”

CONSOL said it values the importance of retention, growth and development of their employees. They invest in their future leaders by offering tools and development resources, flexibility in work schedules, and a tuition reimbursement program for educational pursuits, like the Penn State mining program.

“The standout perk is that it’s an education. I’m 46 years old and have been in this industry for 23 years, so it’s great that CONSOL is giving me this opportunity to better myself and my future. This gives me the chance to move upstairs and hopefully run one of those mines one day.”

—Shawn Bishoff , miner and Penn State student

“The standout perk is that it’s an education,” Bishoff said. “I’m 46 years old and have been in this industry for 23 years, so it’s great that CONSOL is giving me this opportunity to better myself and my future. This gives me the chance to move upstairs and hopefully run one of those mines one day.”

Bishoff admits it’s been a learning curve. He’s taking classes with students as young as his son, who is also attending college. He said the faculty have been in the mining industry and know firsthand what it takes to work while earning a degree.

“All the professors at Penn State have given us a warm welcome,” Bishoff said. “They understand we have families and jobs and that we’re juggling many tasks.”

The need for an educated workforce stems from how complex the industry has gotten. Gone are the days of pack mules and pickaxes. Present day mines are state-of-the-art. Autonomous vehicles aren’t ready for the road, but they’ve been blazing through mines for years. There’s machinery for just about everything, from harvesting the coal to transporting it out at a rate of up to 4,000 tons an hour.

“Much of the back-breaking labor is gone,” Bishoff said. “It’s much easier, faster, safer and more efficient to mine nowadays.”

Penn State’s 134-year-old mining engineering bachelor’s degree program imparts an important role in the associate degree program.

Sekhar Bhattacharyya, associate teaching professor at the University Park Campus, teaches the B.S.-level introductory mining engineering course to the students of Fayette Campus.

Bhattacharyya said that this course will not only introduce the students to the role of mining in global sustainability, but it will also serve as a bridge between the two campuses for career advancement. The scarcity of four-year graduates in mining engineering is already felt in the industry, he said.

Anthony Sable is another taking advantage of the associate program. He always wanted to go to college but started working in the coal mines soon after graduating high school. When the married father of three learned of the opportunity, he jumped at the chance to earn a degree.

He wanted to set an example for his kids while bettering his career. As he nears the half-way point of the program, he’s done just that. His family recently watched him accept the President Walker Award for achieving a perfect 4.0 cumulative grade-point average.

“I was able to bring my wife and oldest boy, who is 8, to the ceremony,” Sable said. “It sets a very good example for him. And it was a good confidence builder for me.”

Sable said leaders in his field need a well-rounded education and to show they’re critical thinkers when it comes to problem-solving. He wants to use his quest for a degree to show what he can accomplish in the classroom, in the mines and beyond.

“It’s great for me to be able to show that I’m able to achieve a degree especially while working full time while raising a family,” Sable said. “It shows what I’m capable of.”

Dalton Eddy, another student of the program, didn’t see himself as college material. He said he jumped right into the workforce, making good money, while getting to travel. He worked about eight years at a geotechnical company helping to build the foundation for – among other structures – the parking garages seen on and around the University Park campus.

The 28-year-old tired of the travel and found stable work at CONSOL. He’s now a foreman trainee and looking to advance his career with the help of a degree.

He’s taking classes related to art history, computers and English alongside students who are preparing for careers in nursing, psychology and a variety of other disciplines.

He admits the 18-year old version of himself might not have treated the experience the same way. But the decade of experience he gained in the workforce is giving him a better appreciation of things.

But, he’s not just in it for himself. The list of people counting on him to do well is growing. He’s hoping to start a family and knows, too, his employer has a lot riding on him.

“It’s a lot different than being in high school. If I didn’t do well, it was on me,” Eddy said. “But now my company is providing me the opportunity to better myself. I want to better myself but also show them I was worth the investment.”