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The coal shoveler's future

COVID-19 may have us re-imagine what jobs -- and industries -- we need in the future

Vincent Van Gogh, "The Coal Shoveler" (1879)

In a phone conversation with a person in New York City earlier this week, he casually mentioned that there was an era when his organization employed a coal shoveler, a person whose job it was to load coal into the furnace to keep the building heated. Of course, there came a day when they installed a "modern" HVAC system, and there was no need for the coal shoveler’s work anymore. As sad as it was, they had to fire the man.

Now, imagine if you are the coal shoveler.

This is a disorienting moment. There’s grief at the loss of a job, even if you didn’t like it all that much. This grief is compounded by the anxiety and uncertainty of your changed financial situation.

But, in the midst of your grief and disorientation, what do you do?

Perhaps you walk door-to-door in lower Manhattan asking who was still using a coal furnace who might also need an experienced shoveler. Maybe you can spend the rest of your career doing that, trusting that there will always be a church or business or a wealthy benefactor resisting change and in need of a good coal shoveler.

Or, once the disorientation has faded a bit more, perhaps you glimpse the future in your situation. Maybe it would happen suddenly or maybe serially, but maybe every business will move to modern heating systems and the market for experienced coal shovelers will disappear completely. What then? Should you use this time then to re-imagine your vocation, to pursue additional training, or start over completely? It’s a difficult question, especially if there are others who depend on your income.

As it is, there aren’t many employment listings for coal shovelers anymore today -- or for switchboard operators, lamplighters or ice cutters for that matter. The world moved on.

It’s too early to know for sure, but it’s possible that, on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, we will suddenly learn that there are jobs, perhaps entire industries, that are today’s coal shovelers. The world will move on from their vocations, and the rest of us would do well to help them prepare for what's next.

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