Terry Hardman at the West Elk Mine in Somerset, Colorado. April 26, 2016.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that boosts American apprenticeships. It will double the amount of money for apprenticeship grants and move control of the program away from the federal government to the private sector. Often with these internships, workers are paid while being trained for a new job, so it preferentially benefits the nearly half of Americans finding it hard to make ends meet. This program could be a real boon for industries like solar, which are desperate for skilled workers, as well as existing workers trapped in declining industries.

Trump has repeatedly shown great interest in America’s coal industry, which has faced a steep decline in profitability. One major American coal company after another has filed for bankruptcy, and coal is declining globally. Even China is moving away from it. The industry is shedding jobs, and it has an enormous negative impact on health. Coal is responsible for killing about as many Americans every year from pollution (about 52,000) as it currently employs (about 53,000).

It is clear that coal is all but dead no matter what Trump does to help it. Coal investors can simply call their brokers to move their money to more profitable and less risky industries, but coal workers are left with pink slips and mortgages in blighted coal country. But Trump can still help the coal workers themselves by retraining them for a more profitable industry.

Trump’s executive order will double the amount of money for apprenticeship grants and move control of the program away from the government to the private sector.

How can a coal worker get a solar career?

A study I co-authored for the journal Energy Economics provides an analysis of the need to retrain current coal workers for employment in the solar industry. In the study, we evaluated the skill sets of current coal workers and tabulated salaries. For each type of coal position, we determined the closest equivalent solar position and tried to match current coal salaries, and then we quantified the time and investment required to retrain each worker.

The results show that a relatively minor investment in retraining would allow the vast majority of coal workers to switch to solar-related positions…