Mining and tunneling face workforce challenges

June 3, 2022

During a panel discussion at the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum’s (CIM/ICM) annual conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in May, Newmont’s executive vice president and chief technology officer Dean Gehring shared a story that is familiar to many mining professionals.

“I was recently on a flight to Denver when the young woman sitting next to me asked me what I did for a living,” said Gehring, guiding the few thousand attendees to a situation that is likely very familiar to many in the room. “I looked at the woman and tried to guess her background and considered how best to answer her.”

Like many who work in the mining industry, Gehring found himself weighing the consequences of his answer. He said he considered telling her that he is an engineer and leaving it at that. It wouldn’t be a lie and in the end it might lead to a little more time to read a book or catch up on emails rather than defend his position and the industry to someone who might be opposed to mining. In the end, Gehring chose to tell her that he was a mining engineer. Her response?

“They still mine in the United States?”

It was a funny tale about a brief exchange with a fellow passenger, but that brief story cuts to the heart of so many issues facing the mining industry. It’s not only that the industry is facing a negative perception but also that many people have almost no knowledge of what the industry does or how it does it. And if they do know what mining is, they think it is still done with a pick axe and a canary in a cage.

Recent surveys of incoming engineering students conducted at the University of Arizona found this to be the case when professors Isabel Barton, Jodi Banta and Lynette Hutson dug deep to find out why so many engineering students choose disciplines other than mining even in a mining friendly state like Arizona (ME, February 2021, October 2021 and March 2022).

“Students arrive in college knowing less about mining engineering than they do about any other engineering major, and they are not interested in subjects they do not know much about. Remedy that disparity in background knowledge, even by a little bit, and there’s a large upward swing in interest,” the authors wrote in the March 2022 installment.

But how do you go about educating the public about an industry they seem to have little interest in?

Sadly, this is not just a mining issue. The tunneling and underground construction industry also finds itself struggling to attract and retain qualified professionals.

The jobs are there. The pay is there. The opportunity to see the world is there, but the students and young professionals are not coming to the industry in the numbers needed to meet the demand.

On page 16 of T&UC, bound into this issue, associate editor Nancy Profera writes about the conversations she had with a number of tunneling professionals about the workforce challenge. And at the George A. Fox Conference in New York City on May 10 hosted by the UCA, a Division of SME, a panel of tunneling and underground construction professionals discussed the challenges facing that industry. Much like mining, the tunneling and underground construction industry struggles because of a lack of awareness.

Gary Almeraris, president of The Moles, a group composed of individuals now or formerly engaged in the construction of tunnel, subway, sewer, foundation, marine, subaqueous or other heavy construction projects, said the key for his industry is not just getting people into the industry, but also keeping them with the right balance of incentives.

“I’m not talking just about the money end, but to have the flexibility and to adjust to the work/life balance,” he said. “If you can get them to have passion for the work, that is the key.”

Mike Rispin, current UCA Chair has worked in mining and tunneling and is passionate about keeping the industry strong.

“I was studying mining engineering and was leaning toward the sales and marketing side because of the fit with my personality. After going out and doing summer jobs, I knew I didn’t want an air-conditioned office. I wanted to be on the road. I wanted to see different projects and get my hands dirty,” Rispin said. “I think a lot of young people don’t necessarily know what they want to do ... we have an issue with making people aware of what kind of wonderful careers we can offer in our industry, but we also fight a battle to make it look attractive against some of the other options that they may be considering.” 


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