DELTA (AP) – Scotty Calhoun saw the handwriting on the longwall years ago and opted out of full-time work at the Elk Creek Mine.
Calhoun instead signed on at TK Mining in Delta and promptly went to work in Colorado, Canada and Mexico.
He’s stayed busy since, and now he’s getting calls from some of the miners who stayed on at the mines in the North Fork Valley and who have since been laid off.
“They want to know if I can put in a good word for them” at TK, Calhoun said.
TK, founded in 2004, has grown from a contract coal-mining business to one that has picks and shovels in almost every kind of mining, from coal to copper to marble. Another arm of the company, TK Industrial, supplies contract help to the natural gas and oil patches.
At one point, TK had 400 people employed at sites scattered around North America and most recently had 160 working in mines or other locations, officials said.
TK also has contract miners working in Australia on gigs lasting a year.
About the only place that TK doesn’t have anyone working right now, said Scott Buhrdorf, a co-owner of TK Holdings Ltd., is the North Fork. TK Holdings has had offices in the former Delta Implement building since April.
“We’re just trying to keep guys employed,” Buhrdorf said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Plenty of laid-off miners and others are looking for exactly that, witness the company’s recent experience, when it posted job openings at 9 a.m. Dec. 16.
Within minutes, the company had 12 applicants and by 2:30 p.m. employment offers had been extended.
The next morning, two new employees were on their way to a job site in Wyoming, said Erik Groves, vice president for personnel and general counsel.
TK had about 30 trucks owned by employees parked in its lot recently, but none of the owners worked there, Groves said. All of them were on job sites elsewhere.
“The reality is that the demand for jobs exceeds the amount of work,” Groves said.
TK’s business amounts to exporting miners and their expertise while importing cash from the jobs they work. “It has a huge multiplier effect” on the Delta economy, Buhrdorf said.
Theirs is a competitive business, competitive enough that the company owns airplanes that can deliver a crew in half a day, Buhrdorf said. Flying commercial could take a day and a half or longer, or worse.
“We would never get those jobs without those airplanes,” Burhdorf said, noting that some customers have said TK’s ability to deliver miners to sites on time was key to being awarded a contract.
For Calhoun, the seeming instability of working as a contract miner has paid off with reliable work for a decade. That reliable employment has paid off even as the North Fork coal-driven economy has faltered.
That’s translated into a comfortable home on Garnet Mesa with his wife, Kersea, and their son, Tristan, 2, and daughter Tatum, 4 months.
“It’s a good place to raise a family,” Calhoun said, looking from his yard toward the spruce-studded slopes of Grand Mesa as the first-of-the-season snow turned the mountain white.
His wife, who studied international relations at the University of Colorado, and he had agreed that she would remain a stay-at-home mom, Kersea said, holding Tatum on her lap.
“I’m a firm believer in energy independence and a diversified energy portfolio,” Kersea Calhoun said. “I’m all for alternative energy, but if the coal industry shuts down, I don’t know what we would do.”
Her husband’s employment has been more regular than many of his contemporaries in the mines, Kersea said.
“I feel bad for those guys, laid off, hired on and laid off again,” she said.
Her husband’s seven-days-on, seven-days-off routine has plenty of challenge to it, Kersea said.
“Yes, he’s gone, but when he’s here, he’s here,” she said.
Miners’ wives everywhere wait to hear that their husbands have emerged safely from the earth.
Calhoun calls every night by 6:15, and if she hasn’t heard from him by 6:30, she starts to worry, and was frantic when he didn’t call until 11 p.m. recently.
Turned out that was a telephone-system problem, not one with the mine.
Calhoun has worked in Canada and Mexico, as well as Trinidad, Colorado, where he’s dealt with a variety of mining issues.
“Look what I’ve done. It’s made me well-rounded as a miner.”
As much as he’d like to insulate himself from the local economy, Calhoun, who also runs an outfitting business, can’t entirely escape it.
He’d like to sell his house and buy another place with some acreage, but, “The market’s so bad, I can’t sell it.”