SME President's Page

William Edgerton

Every five years, SME reviews its strategic plan. In 2019, with significant help from SME members and staff, the SME Board carefully designed a new strategic plan slated for implementation in 2020. The plan includes four goals intended to provide direction to the Society over the next five years. Each goal was given a new strategic committee named after its goal. In this column, I will focus on the Industry Workforce goal.

Industry Workforce: Mining, metallurgy, exploration and underground construction are careers of choice.

Objectives:

1. Stabilize academic program capacity.

2. Share best practices for recruiting a professional workforce.

3. Assist employers to attract and maintain a quality workforce.

4. Explore ways to retain an early career workforce.

5. Recognize and support changing professional development needs.

During the MINEXCHANGE 2021 SME Annual Conference & Expo, the Industry Workforce Strategic Committee, led by outgoing chair Dave Rogstad and incoming chair Cat Joyner identified two main themes to help meet these objectives.

The first theme is related to the supply side: What is the extent of the workforce in the pipeline? The second theme is related to the demand side: What level of workforce do we need to sustain a healthy mining and underground construction industry? An assessment of both the supply and demand sides is needed to determine specific tactics that can be undertaken to address our strategic goal.

In answering the supply-side question, we have already taken steps to address a known reduction in workforce. Recognizing that the number of mining engineering professors was decreasing to such an extent that it could threaten the viability of some programs, the SME Foundation decided to fund both a Ph.D. Fellowship Program and a Career Development Grant Program. Since their inception in 2015, both have been very successful. Ten Career Development grants have been issued, and all 10 awardees have either achieved tenure at mining engineering schools or are progressing toward that goal. Of the 14 Ph.D. Fellowship awards made, three have received the degree and eight are on track toward completing their doctorates. Only three of the initial awardees have dropped from the program. This represents a very successful outcome for the objective of supporting mining engineering schools within the United States.

Having supported the teaching side of the education equation, it is important to look at the student side to answer the question: Is there a sufficient number of incoming students to meet industry needs? To this end, the Society of Mining Professors (SOMP) completed a survey of mining engineering programs in February 2021. The survey identified the following numbers of students for the 14 mining engineering programs in the U.S:

• 736 B.Sc. undergraduate students

• 234 graduate level students (M.S. and Ph.D.)

This data in itself doesn’t mean much without looking at the demand side of the equation. Considering the likelihood that not all those students will graduate, and that not all graduates will choose a career in mining, it becomes important to investigate the industry’s demand for mining engineers. Within the next month or so, SME’s Workforce Strategic Committee will undertake a survey of employers to get input from their crystal ball as to how many engineers they think they will need for future maintenance and growth. As we all know, increased employment in the mining industry largely depends on the demand for our products, so results from such a study will need to factor in economic fluctuations within our industry and the impact of changing regulations. Nonetheless, SME believes that establishing viable strategies for developing the needed workforce requires input from industry leaders in order to assess supply and demand. When you see a request from our volunteers and/or staff, please respond with your best guess as to your needs. We will share all the results.

Another element of workforce strategy is illustrated by SME’s Underground Construction Division (UCA). Most entrants into underground construction come from the ranks of civil engineers, not mining engineers. There are 256 ABET accredited civil programs in the U.S., a much broader source of supply than that of mining engineers. Despite the larger number of programs, UCA members report that finding new employees has been a problem and facing them is a critical issue. It is expected to get even more challenging if government funding for infrastructure projects increases. The results of a recent UCA fact-finding mission showed that there was limited familiarity with underground construction within engineering schools; career decisions are typically made before the junior year of undergraduate school, and the professors within the civil programs have a relatively strong influence on the future path of their students.

Recognizing these factors, the UCA has developed a program to partner with other member associations within the underground industry. In collaboration with ASCE’s Geo-Institute, the Moles, the Beavers, and the Deep Foundation Institute (DFI), the program includes: (1) coordinating with universities to increase relationships with practicing engineers, (2) encouraging volunteer speakers to make presentations to illustrate the exciting world of underground engineering, (3) a “Teach the Professor” program, wherein professors attend the yearly tunnel conferences and participate in a workshop with industry practitioners in developing curricula elements that introduce real-world underground construction problems into the classroom, (4) donating teaching resources (these can be branded), (5) offering tunnel tours of existing projects, and (6) identifying internships and entry level positions. More information about this “Down for That” initiative can be found at www.undergroundcareers.org. This model may be a useful starting point for SME at large.

Industry Workforce is a major component in the SME strategic plan: Although the business cycles are driven by different factors, attracting the workforce is critically important to both mining and underground construction. SME is advancing major initiatives collecting data as well as implementing measures to increase the number of students who enter our business. I look forward to hearing your ideas on how we can advance this important element of our strategic plan.