PITTSBURGH – Competing companies are raiding each other for experienced help, renting ad space, billboards, even banner-towing planes at beach resorts with generous offers of pay and benefits in what is turning out to be one very hot sector of the job market.

America needs coal miners.

Coal prices are hitting record highs and some of the biggest energy companies say they desperately need help to meet demand.

But the real crunch, according to coal producers and the U.S. Department of Labor, is going to occur in five to seven years when the industry faces a massive wave of retirements.

There is no next generation of miners to replace them, according to Tom Hoffman, vice president of investor and public relations at Consol Energy, the nation’s largest underground coal producer.

“For the last 15 years or so, we’ve been able to reach back into a pool of experienced miners that had been laid off or who had lost jobs through consolidation,” Hoffman said. “Those guys are now largely gone, either retired or they got out of the business. We’re facing a very big demographic bubble.”

Officials with the National Mining Association testified before Congress this summer that more than half of all coal miners are older than 50 and that replacements for those workers would have to be found before the end of the decade.

That would equal tens of thousands of jobs.

But dozens of mining communities saw much of the next generation of miners leave years ago, with few prospects for jobs in the rural areas where coal is mined.

The labor shortage is already being felt by Consol and other major producers.

Consol, which is based in Pittsburgh, told investors production was down in some Kentucky mines because operators could not find enough help.

Massey Energy Corp., the fourth-largest U.S. coal company, reported last month that third-quarter profits would take a hit due to a labor shortage.

“It is a major issue for us now and the most significant restriction we have to growth,” said Katharine Kenny, spokeswoman for the Richmond, Va.-based company. “All things being equal, not having enough people will prevent us from hitting production goals.”

In July, when many coal miners traditionally take vacation, Massey sent airplanes over the resort community of Myrtle Beach, S.C., pulling banners that promised big money and better benefits.

Myrtle Beach is a popular vacation spot for miners from West Virginia, said Jeff Gillenwater, who heads Massey’s recruitment efforts.

Gillenwater acknowledges the company is trying to lure new miners, as well as miners from competitors in an extremely tight labor market.

The problem is so pervasive, it has reached into the ranks of state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“MSHA, like others, including the private sector, is facing a significant challenge of how to replace its current work force as they age and retire,” said Dave D. Lauriski, assistant secretary of labor.

MSHA held recruiting drives in New York and Pennsylvania last week and is holding another Monday near Pittsburgh.

The Department of Labor met with industry executives earlier this month in Las Vegas to form a collaborative for a national recruiting drive.

The number of coal miners nationwide dropped from 159,777 in 1990 to 99,358 the end of 2003, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Those who dispersed years ago to places hundreds of miles from the coal fields of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky are the target of recruitment efforts from Gillette, Wyo., to Charlotte, N.C., Massey’s Gillenwater said.

Mining interests and the Labor Department say they believe most miners who left did so out of necessity, and would return home if they knew coal mining jobs were there.

“They didn’t leave their families … they didn’t leave their homes because they wanted to,” said Bruce Watzman, vice president for safety and health at the National Mining Association. “Many of these guys want to get back to where the family is but unfortunately, a lot of the mining support system has disappeared since the early 1980s.”

A number of college programs that trained foreman, engineers, and inspectors have been cut, or are greatly reduced, said Joe Sbaffoni, the director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.

Sbaffoni is meeting with officials at Penn State University to reopen a mining program at its Fayette County campus in the heart of the state’s coal country.

The shortage of qualified miners is affecting other industries as well, including the metals industry, said Richard Perry, vice president of Denver’s Newmont Corp., the largest gold producer in the world.

In the United States, only 100 people graduated last year with mine engineering degrees, though there was a market demand for 500, Perry said.

“It is an issue that is affecting mining across the board,” he said.

The United Mine Workers Career Centers Inc., which retrains displaced coal miners in several states for other jobs, has just applied for federal funding to begin training new coal miners.

The money to be made mining in rural coal areas far outpaces almost all other jobs in those communities and is already drawing young men back to the hunt for coal.

Many are carrying on a family tradition that they had believed was lost with their fathers.

“I’m proud to say I’m a fifth-generation miner … that’s on both sides of my family,” said Jeff Samek, 21, of Rices Landing, in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania.

Samek had trained as a welder, but the pay and benefits were nowhere near what can be made in the mines, he said.

“We’re pretty much writing our own check,” he said.

Miners can start at $40,000 to $50,000, but can make as much as $100,000 if they work all the overtime that is to be had.

Earl Lewis, 34, of Crucible, quit his job as an EMT and, like his father and grandfather, is now a coal miner. He is putting away money for the first time in 15 years.

Both Lewis and Samek work for Maple Creek Mining, in Bentleyville, south of Pittsburgh.

“There are a lot of red caps floating around at Maple Creek,” Lewis said, referring to the colored helmets inexperienced miners must wear.

Meanwhile, companies like Consol are stepping up recruiting at colleges for mining engineers and at high schools and at what trade schools remain for foreman or miners.

“This is very good news for areas that for years have had a tough time retaining young people,” said Hoffman. “If we can get the message out, I don’t know how many more town meetings there are going to be in these communities where the topic is flight.”