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Skilled workforce shrinks amid global job pressure as industry enjoys uptick
January 10, 2012

A Wall Street Journal article on Nov. 17 shed light on one of the most pressing issues in the mining industry when it was reported that workers are earning $200,000 a year in Western Australia, running drills in underground mines to extract gold and other minerals. Because of a labor shortage mining companies in countries such as Australia and Canada are experiencing mining booms and are wooing recent graduates of U.S. mining schools.

But as another recent article points out, this one from the Spokane Journal of Business, high wages can be found at domestic mines as well.

Hecla Mining Co. president and chief executive officer Phil Baker told the Spokane Journal of Business that a miner in North Idaho's Silver Valley now can earn up to $175,000 a year, including benefits.

While that's on the high end of the pay spectrum, Coeur d'Alene-based Hecla's average yearly pay for its mining employees is currently at about $90,000, including benefits — a significant jump since the mining slump of the mid-2000s.

Demand for employees is a driving factor that is being fueled by improved company margins that are benefiting from record metal prices and demand this past year.

While individuals are benefiting with higher pay, the industry is facing an impending shortage of skilled mine workers, creating higher demand for workers.

Mining is one of the few industries nationally where long-term, well-paying jobs are being added, according to a report for the National Academy of Sciences on emerging U.S. mining workforce trends, undertaken by SME. Completed in December, the report found that in one year — between June 2010 and 2011 — coal mining jobs grew 7.6 percent, metals mining jobs grew 3.9 percent, and jobs in support activities for mining grew at a rate of 19.2 percent.

"Even this last year, as overall job growth hit a standstill, mining continues to add jobs at an impressive rate. From June 2010 to June 2011, metal and coal mining added 11,000 direct and 17,000 mining support jobs at salaries well above the national average for all private-sector jobs," the report said. 

The report also says, "Retirement and projected global increase in demand for mine labor will likely provide a steady stream of new jobs with attractive wages. For a period of time, the U.S. will have a workforce composed of very young and very senior workers."

 The study found that the U.S. mining industry — when including coal, metal, industrial minerals and aggregates — on average employs about 350,000 people in the U.S., said John Hayden, SME’s director of public affairs and government relations.

 The average rate of job addition is expected to remain between 11,000 and 13,000 per year in the U.S., "for the foreseeable future," Hayden said. Projections for U.S. mining labor indicate an addition of about 50,000 workers by 2019, but for that gain to be offset by the loss of about 78,000 employees due to retirement over that same period. By 2029, over half the current workforce — about 221,000 U.S. mining workers — will have retired.


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