Mining for young employees

Iron Range Engineering students learn about process automation controls from Justin Monacelli (right), Duncan area sales manager, during the 2019 SME trade show at Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Keynote SME conference speaker: Industry needs to show mining as an appealing career

  Mining operations throughout the world are facing similar challenges.

  Changing commodity prices. Thinking globally. Digital-age security. Sustainability. Adequate water supply. And more.

  But the biggest issue is people.

  Attracting the workforce of the future is becoming one of the largest stumbling stones many mining companies face.

  “I think we're at a bit of an existential crisis in mining,” Phil Hopwood, Deloitte global lead of mining and metals, said at the 2019 Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration conference in Duluth. “The reality is in the next 10 years a lot of people are going away (retiring), and there's nobody to replace them.”

  A workforce shortage is nothing new for business and industry. Northeastern Minnesota's mining companies and businesses for several years have been having difficulty finding enough dependable, well-trained workers. However, in mining, the issue isn't exclusive to just northeastern Minnesota, said Hopwood. And it's mining companies that need to be a major part of the solution, he said

  “The mining industry is characterized by boom and bust cycles,” said Hopwood. “So it sacks people when prices go down. If the industry doesn't produce jobs, they're not going to be able to find employees.”

  Mining jobs are among the highest-paying in Northeastern Minnesota and come with good benefits.

  But technology and equipment improvements mean that fewer employees are needed today to produce the same amount of tonnage as years ago.

  The boom and bust cycle, coupled with new technologies and a reduction in mining programs at higher education institutions across the nation, has mining officials concerned about who will become the miners of the future.

  “Mining schools are disappearing,” said Hugh Miller, SME national president. “There's 14 mining schools left in the U.S. Not having enough (mining) professors is a big issue.” 

  The SME is working to show young people that mining is a solid occupation, said Miller.

  Nationally, the SME is making a push to make mining an attractive occupation by encouraging participation by young members. And over the last five years, more than 20,000 Mining in Society Boy Scout Merit Badges have been awarded to young people, said Miller.

  Currently, Minnesota's mining industry looks solid.

  Northeastern Minnesota's six taconite plants, which produce iron ore pellets used to make steel, are operating at capacity. Prices have stabilized and the industry is investing capital into its facilities, said Hopwood.

  “Iron ore prices are actually pretty good,” he noted. “Eighty-five dollars a ton is what to look for because that's when people want to bring on new capacity.”

  Beyond iron ore, copper production will become even more important as the United States moves toward more electric vehicles, said Hopwood.

  PolyMet Mining Corp., which would mine copper near the former LTV Steel Mining Co. facility at Hoyt Lakes, plans this year to begin plant development

  Europe said Hopwood, is currently investing 8 billion euro to build electric vehicle charging stations.

  “Electric vehicles are real,” said Hopwood. “The future is electric. If you want an electric vehicle, you're going to have to have copper, but you also have to have a charging grid and you can't power a grid with wind or hydro.”

  As mines seek out new employees, diversity is key, said Hopwood. BHP, a world-leading minerals company based in Melbourne, Australia, is moving toward a 50/50 ratio of female and male, employees, he said. “They want to get different thinking in the room and look at how they think as an organization.”

   Meanwhile, mining companies everywhere need to take steps to show young people that mining is an appealing occupation, he said. Offering flexible working hours, the ability to work from home and a renewed effort in mining education is needed to attract more young people, said Hopwood.  

  “Very few mining companies have graduate programs where you bring in employees and give them undergraduate work,” he said. “The (mining) schools are not big anymore because the industry has not been forward thinking in seeing a future for the younger generations. The industry has to show it to be an attractive career.”

  The SME conference attracted about 1,000 mining professionals.