SME President's Page

Hugh Miller

Declining student enrollments: A cyclical challenge

In the last eight months, I've written two articles as part of a continuing effort to underscore some of the significant challenges facing the long-term sustainability of academic degree programs in mining, extractive metallurgy and mineral processing. This month's article will address the challenges associated with declining student enrollments in mining engineering throughout much of the developed world and the profound implications this has on the availability of new professionals entering the industry.

Since 1982, the number of U.S. universities offering accredited undergraduate degrees in mining engineering has plunged from 25 to 13. Of the remaining programs, a significant percentage are considered at risk due to low student enrollments, the limited number of core academic faculty, the lack of institutional resources and/or a combination of other inter-related threats. During this period, total undergraduate graduation rates in the United States have fallen from nearly 600 students annually to fewer than 225 (SME statistics). Looking specifically over the last five years, data collected during SME mineral department heads meetings has shown that the overall undergraduate student enrollment in U.S. mining departments has dropped from 1,489 in 2015 to an estimated 874 in 2019, a reduction of more than 40 percent. Similarly, student graduation rates during this same period have declined from 390 in 2015 to a projected 219 this year. Ironically, this decline has occurred during a period where graduating students have enjoyed nearly full employment with high starting salaries as compared to other STEM disciplines. The United States isn't alone in experiencing these daunting challenges. Engineers Canada, a national licensing organization, indicated that between 2015 and 2016, Canadian undergraduate mining engineering programs experienced a 12 percent drop in enrollment, which represents the largest decline of all engineering disciplines. This trend greatly compounds the scarcity of talent that already exists in the country. The Canadian mining industry will require 145,000 new workers (both professional and hourly) by 2023. This implies that nearly half of the country's mining workforce will turn-over due to retirements and attrition in three short years. Unfortunately, the situation in Australia is even more dire. According to the Mineral Council of Australia, the total number of mining engineers graduating from Australia's eight mining universities could drop from the nearly 300 graduates that were produced annually just a few years ago to just 50 per year over the next four years, despite nearly guaranteed employment and high wages.

Given these declining enrollments and graduation rates, the implications for both academic programs and industry are alarming and have long-term ramifications on the ability of universities to supply the necessary talent needed by industry, as well as keeping the existing degree-granting programs sustainable. In addition, as these numbers decline, there is a real threat to mining engineering as a distinctly recognized discipline from the perspective of accreditation and professional licensing. Interestingly, these types of trends have occurred repeatedly over time. Dr. Charles Fairhurst, an icon in mining education and research from the University of Minnesota, graciously sent me a wealth of information that included a historical narrative of efforts by AIME and MMSA to assist in stabilizing mining enrollments that date back to the early 1960s. This only underscores the complexities associated with student enrollments and the viability of academic programs over time, including influences of the boom-and-bust employment practices historically used by companies during market cycles, the displacement of talent as a consequence of new technologies, and the evolution of skill-sets as job functions change.

So given the situation, what are the underlying issues that are adversely impacting student enrollment and what can we do to mitigate them? While based mostly on conjecture, there seems to be common consensus on a few contributing factors. Recruiting students into mining and minerals engineering is becoming increasingly difficult. Part of the issue is that we are no longer attracting students from historic mining areas or from mining families. I was told by a friend that during a western mining conference several years ago, a speaker asked an audience comprised of mining professionals how many would encourage their sons or daughters to go into the mining business. Unfortunately, only a couple hands were raised. If we can't successfully recruit students from our own communities, it's hard to see how we can attract kids that know little to nothing about the industry. Today, the vast majority of our mining students come from suburbia and have never seen a mine or built anything with their hands, but are extremely proficient in the use of software and video games. These students have a very limited view of mining before reaching college and have to overcome the negative public image (perception) of what the industry represents. Often selling the idea of mining being a viable and positive career option to the parents of perspective students is the biggest hurdle.

Fundamentally, it appears that the interests and priorities that drive high school and college age kids today are simply different than they were just a decade ago. The current generation of post-millennials seem focused on careers that allow them to live in major cities, work in controlled environments, and enjoy flexible schedules that provide what they believe is an advantageous work-life balance. Employment in fields heavily oriented towards computer applications, software development, and technology are the new norm. Unfortunately, most mining jobs struggle to appeal to many of these young perspective professionals despite our heavy dependence on technology and diverse, interdisciplinary skill-sets. While I'm not an advocate of changing the course curriculum of mining degree programs in order to appeal to prospective students, we definitely need to market the degree and career opportunities differently. This entails better ways to educate and recruit high quality students into our programs through scholarships, meaningful internships, and novel educational experiences. This can't be done without industry involvement, where they have a responsibility in creating stable employment opportunities that will attract and retain graduates. Mentoring, continuing education, revised labor and talent management practices, and changes in how companies operate are all necessary. While some companies are making a significant effort in these areas, we have a long way to go as an industry.

I want to extend my sincere thanks to everyone who has contributed insightful comments, ideas, and opinions regarding these challenges. It's much appreciated. I'd like to also wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and a safe, productive New Year. Take care and please be safe.