March/April 2009


Shedding the bad-guy image

By C. Edwards

Our industry hiring practices are being affected by the current downturn (“recession” is too depressing a word). This is understandable. When you are up to your derriere among alligators you may not have time or the incentive to consider who you want to get in the boat with you.

Nevertheless, I think we all believe the world will recover, and indications are that our mining/processing industry will recover relatively early. Some prices remain reasonably healthy; gold, potash and uranium come to mind. Some mining/processing firms are now raising capital even in this crippled market.

Looking past the present difficulties, our chronic lack of experienced people will not cure itself. Some firms are looking to the “over 65s,” encouraging them to delay retirement with programs and arrangements that make this an attractive option. This is a big improvement over the previously common, “Oh all right, if you must…” attitude. All to the good, but it will be far from sufficient. I suggest we need to move on two fronts: make our industry more attractive to a wide public, and pursue aggressive student support and recruiting strategies.

On the attractive industry front, there is a lot of work to do. We insiders tend to forget the negative image mining has for the general public. Consider that persuasive opinion maker — movies. In “The Citadel,” the saintly doctor, alone, devotes himself to treating the residents of a poverty-stricken, tuberculosis-riddled mining community. “How Green Was My Valley” portrays generations of a mining family struggling with poverty and accidental death in the mines. “The Molly Maguires” die fighting the murderous cruelty of the mining company. “Outland” is set at a titanium mine on Jupiter’s moon Io. The beleaguered marshal is a brave, honest family man while, even in this imagined future, the miners are either strong-backed brutes or thieving, malignant, homicidal managers. “October Sky” has the genius-level, NASA-bound science student escaping a boring, dirty, dangerous, no-future job in a coal mine. On the bright side, it could be worse — millions of people think Homer Simpson is a typical nuclear power plant operator!

To recruit more young people into our industry, we need to encourage and support them as students and nurture them as new hires. Let’s offer more university and college scholarships. Let’s engage, as firms and individuals, in our universities and colleges. For example, we should enthusiastically provide real projects to engineering and technical design classes, with site visits and informed support from industry contacts.

The industry needs to offer more summer jobs. Students thereby earn part of their school costs for the next year (which minimizes student loans — always a sore point), learn about our industry, take stories back to school of how wonderful mining and processing are and what great companies and people we are. Our evaluation of their performance should inform our consideration of permanent job offers into our engineer-in-training programs and the equivalent programs for all technical and skilled trades jobs. If we don’t have such programs, we need to create them now.

Attracting, nurturing and retaining young people does more than simply fill in organization chart boxes. It brings fresh thinking, new ideas and improved ways of doing things. For example, the “old” way, my way, of beginning a plant design is to imagine the process, draw a flowsheet, calculate the mass balance (dreading recycle flows) and size equipment. Current process engineering graduates do it better. They imagine the process, then immediately model it, with the mass balance inherent in the model, and the flowsheet and equipment sizing dropping out of the model. As much as I admire this modelling capability, I can’t do it. My limit is email and basic word processing. I can program and use a TV remote, but I was totally mystified as my daughters loaded music for me into my new IPod Nano™.

The most successful enterprises strive to control their own destiny. They imagine the future they need in order to be successful and then do everything in their power to make that future happen. I am convinced that attracting, nurturing and retaining young people with their new ideas and fresh thinking must be an integral facet of such a future for our mining/processing industry.

Chuck Edwards is director of metallurgy at AMEC Americas Limited.

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