Family break-up, drug use and social issues could snowball in coal-reliant communities without an appropriately planned transition from the industry, a senate inquiry was told in Newcastle on Tuesday.
Steve Murphy, NSW branch secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, told the Jobs for the Future in Regional Areas committee of his union's concern for Hunter communities if there was no "intervention" to plan for jobs beyond those in, or associated with, the coal industry.
"Without a proper plan, we believe there is going to be significant family break-up, drug problems and social problems, if there's not intervention to prepare for a transition and create [replacement] jobs," he said.
Mr Murphy was one of more than a dozen officials who spoke at the hearing about the region's state of affairs and possible future.
The committee, instigated by the Greens and established in July, has held hearings around the country in recent weeks and will conclude in Sydney on Thursday.
It is investigating new industries and employment opportunities that can be created in regions; lessons from structural adjustments in industries; the importance of planning for economic diversification; and ways to guide a future transition.
"Our workers are worried about this, they're talking about it in their lunchrooms," Mr Murphy said.
"It's genuine concern about them and their families and what the future of jobs is going to be."
AGL Macquarie worker Gerard Spinks said the future closure of Hunter power stations was a worry for workers and their communities.
"If this heart stops beating, the region will die," he said.
"If the energy sector disappears ... we need something else to replace it. We all need to pull together and set our region up for the transition away from fossil fuels."
Mr Murphy said a plan for future jobs needed to be developed now as it would "take years to get off the ground".
"We cannot have an energy transition without a jobs transition," he said.
Hunter Business Chamber chief executive Bob Hawes said mine owners were eyeing renewable energy projects to ensure their sites did not "close on Friday and be gone Monday". He spoke of the lessons learnt from the BHP Steelworks closure.
"The lessons out of that are to have that good run up... give people options," he said.
Port of Newcastle chief executive Craig Carmody added: "Twenty years on we have to start the transition again."
"When coal really starts to decline, we need to have the other businesses well and truly established," he said, adding Port of Newcastle wanted to "reach a deal" with the state government for a container terminal - referenced throughout the hearing as a transition jobs driver.
"I believe a deal will be reached," Mr Carmody said.
Mr Carmody said coal exports were strong to Japan, China and Vietnam, and there would likely be no significant change in overall export numbers for the next 15 years.
He said the quality of the region's coal left it well positioned, but diversification of the port would be crucial for the region long term.
Hunter Joint Organisation chair Bob Pynsent told the hearing a number of Hunter communities were "probably in denial", comfortable with high wages and "don't see the need for a transition".
Earlier on, when he was speaking as Cessnock mayor, Mr Pynsent said Cessnock had suffered from a past "reliance" on the coal industry, but had grown its tourism industry as a substitute.
"We need to invest in our young people," he said. "In our LGA, it's tough being a young person. One apprenticeship opportunity could receive over 100 applicants."
Mr Pynsent attributed low levels of engagement with tertiary education to poor transport connectivity.
"We lack transport to get to Newcastle," he said. "The government needs to support that connectivity.
"Most of our young people [who do] graduate university, leave Cessnock."
A Singleton council official said young people needed to be encouraged to seek avenues other than the "quick cash" on offer in mining.
"It's about reducing the reliance on mining," she said. "It's something we need to start now."
Lock the Gate coordinator Georgina Woods said Hunter workers wanted a plan for the future.
"We've knocked on thousands of doors in Singleton and Muswellbrook," she said.
"Nine out of 10 people told us they believe the Hunter needs a plan to transition beyond coal."