June 11, 2019
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The stereotypical image of miners is easy to picture—soot-covered men streaming out of a mine at dusk, a hard hat in one hand and an empty lunch pail in the other. It’s an image that has persisted for decades, yet is an entirely antiquated notion.
In recent years, the mining industry has undergone its own version of a tech boom, resulting in the need to hire and re-train more digitally savvy, technically focused mining professionals.
“The days of mechanics in dirty coveralls with a tool box full of wrenches going down to take care of everything are gone,” said Bret Murphy, the Dean of Business and Technology at Great Basin College in Elko, Nevada. “Now it’s high-tech, laptop computers, digital specialists and electronic monitoring devices. It’s gotten more sophisticated.”
Great Basin is one of several colleges and universities across the country that have partnered with local mining companies to train and cultivate a new, highly skilled—and highly compensated—mining workforce. Its most recent success has come in the form of a partnership with Barrick Gold Corporation, which has two gold mining operations in Elko: Cortez and Goldstrike. While Great Basin has trained Barrick millwrights, welders and electrical technicians since the 1980s, Cisco Networking Academy—a newly created educational program between Barrick Gold and Great Basin—began offering new courses in the fall semester of 2017 to train Barrick employees and current students in digital mining IT.
“Collaboration has always been at the heart of the partnership between Barrick and Cisco,” said Michael Brown, president of Barrick USA. “Working together with Great Basin College to bring this program to our people and the wider community underscores the importance we put on training our workforce and helping promote further education in the local community.”
From learning how to control an autonomous truck to managing an underground drone for mineral exploration, minerals mining is undergoing a rapid transition from mechanical to electronically driven technologies, creating a major need for digitally savvy mine workers.
At Cisco Networking Academy, classes are presented through Cisco Systems technology that Murphy describes as “prime-the-pump courses to get [students] interested in digital information, networking” and other tech-heavy specializations. Murphy noted that this technological push has not only resulted in better wages, but safer mines and greater ability to avert challenges with digital monitoring and trend-spotting.
Similarly, Hecla Mining Company—which owns and operates Greens Creek mine in southeast Alaska— has partnered with the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) to embark on an educational program that trains local high school students for technically focused mining careers. The program began in 2011 when Hecla Mining Company donated $300,000 to UAS to create an “Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operations” course for local high school students. This has quickly expanded into a five-step program called The Pathway to Mining Careers. “The pathway” begins with an introductory course for high school juniors and seniors and concludes with enrollment in Hecla Greens Creek Mine Academy, where students earn the federally recognized certification required to work at any mine in the United States.
“Our focus here at UAS is to get students interested in careers as mine mechanics,” said Graham Neale, the Director of UAS’ Center for Mine Training. “Greens Creek has a lot of out-of-state hires with a high turnover rate. The goal is to educate the local Alaska workforce in those skilled positions…We’re interested in casting a wide net to high school students, letting them know about the opportunities available in the mining industry, different types of careers. Speakers talk about how they got to where they are. Health and safety, equipment operations, mechanics – you get it from the horse’s mouth, from those who have walked the walk in the mining industry.”
The results so far have been encouraging—258 students have taken the intro class, 48 advanced to the Hecla Greens Creek Mine Academy, and 15 went on to graduate with a UAS certification in mining.
“I try to dispel the notion that mining is just about being underground, breaking rock and getting dirty,” Neale said. “Geology jobs, environmental jobs, legal jobs, financial jobs. All those careers are available to them if they so choose.”
One of the most effective methods Murphy and Neale have found in convincing young students to pursue mining education is a reality check on the quality of life afforded by working in a technical job for a mine. In Nevada, for instance, Murphy explains that an entry-level base salary typically falls in the $60,000 – $67,000 range; with overtime, it’s “not unheard of to make [between] $90,000 and $100,000.” In Alaska, Neale says entry-level mining salaries run from $60,000 to $75,000. “That’s a lot of money for someone working in rural Alaskan communities—it’s a lot of money for anyone,” Neale said.
Training the next generation of workers is a “critical step in our digital transformation and innovation strategy to ensure we are building a sustainable, skilled workforce to support our business in the future,” Barrick’s Brown said, and partnering with local colleges to build programs that will lead the path “is fascinating,” noted Great Basin’s Murphy.
“It’s nice once in a while to be on the cutting edge of something. That’s where Barrick is with this transformation to the digital work. It’s cool that we can be a part of it.”
Michael Brown is the president of Barrick USA, a subsidiary of Barrick Gold Corporation, the largest gold mining company in the world, with headquarters in Toronto, Canada.
Bret Murphy is the Dean of Business and Technology at Great Basin College located in Elko, Nevada.
Graham Neale is the Director of the Center for Mine Training at the University of Alaska Southeast.