Dec '08/Jan '09

Student Life

Save the planet, be a miner!

By R. Cunningham

Tomorrow’s miners will change the face of the minerals industry

The minerals industry is generally considered to be quite conservative. The techniques used to separate minerals have been recognizable over the ages, and technical progress, despite its acceleration in recent times, has remained incremental rather then revolutionary. So what can a student entering the minerals industry expect today?

The current market uncertainty, aging workforce and greater focus on environmental responsibility mean it is not going to be “business as usual” for much longer. It is, therefore, an exciting time to enter the minerals industry. There are formidable problems that require novel solutions. The world needs more metal, and the metal has to be mined with less people, with less energy and from new frontiers.

The minerals industry is operated, maintained and managed by an aging workforce. Within the next ten years, many experienced people will retire from the industry. This will open more positions than the incoming workforce can fill. This stress on the industry will have predictable results. Labour will not come from traditional sources. One challenge this will pose will be the need to communicate with people from different perspectives and backgrounds.

Fortunately, new entrants to the minerals industry will come from the richly diverse milieu found in today’s universities. Their exposure to diversity is the very advantage that the industry will need. The next generation will transform the traditional white male-dominated culture with their new paradigms. It will be this outlook that will help the industry adapt to the labour shortage.

Mining is an industry of new frontiers. This has been and will always be true. Rich deposits located close to the surface in locations near the market are now rare. The search for metal deposits has already led to mine development in challenging settings, from tropical jungles to arid deserts. New collaborations are being forged with companies and countries around the world.

Where are tomorrow’s  frontiers? As traditional ore sources are becoming limited, non-traditional sources are being examined. Our definitions of where to explore are already changing. What is considered as viable ore will continue to shift with new technological improvements. Already, the harsh climate of the Far North is no deterrent to the building of mines. Mining the seabed is soon to move from the pages of sci-fi novels to reality. We will also be digging deeper and deeper into the earth.

If nuclear fusion becomes a viable energy source, mining the moon for helium to fuel new-generation reactors will simply be a matter of who can get there first. The harsher the environment, the greater will be the need for automation. Combine this with the push to find improved ways to separate minerals and you will realize the urgent need for champions of innovation.

The face of the minerals industry has to change. In today’s global community, being inline with both social and environmental needs is a must. The generation of students about to enter the industry has been raised with the mission of “saving the planet.” The current perception is that mining is the career choice of those perusing personal wealth and turning their back to the needs of the world. There is nothing farther from the truth.

The world needs metals. It is tiresome to be portrayed and perceived as “destroyers of the world” by those in “environmentally friendly” fields. Our detractors would do well to remember that riding a bike to work would be awfully difficult without the metals that to go into those bikes.

Not only is the minerals industry necessary, it is also one that can make real differences to our planet. Reducing the energy needed to extract a unit of metal makes a massive global difference. Therefore, my mantra is, “Save the planet, be a miner!”

It is not only on the environmental front that the students of today can shape the tomorrow of the minerals industry. Different disciplines, such as law, will be required to help shape the new minerals industry. Our laws governing land and exploration rights are in dire need of change. Today’s laws contribute to strained relations between native and host communities and mining companies. Changing the framework within which we develop new mines can help improve both society and the environment. There is a need and desire for change in all quarters. Innovative laws and policies can deliver win-win solutions to everybody.

When stresses on an environment increase, so does the need to adapt. The clear winners will be the ones who meet the challenges head-on, with heads held high, seeking the solutions we need.

We who will soon be entering the industry need to know where the industry has been. Understanding historic blunders will be the key to avoiding them in our careers. At the same time, we should be mindful of the unique challenges that will mark our careers. Companies and individuals who see the opportunities in the problems and boldly take the initiative to solve them will be the winners of the minerals industry of tomorrow.

Ryan Cunningham is a second-year master’s student in the Department of Mining, Metals and Materials Engineering at McGill University. He is part of the Steering Committee for MiHR’s Mining Industry Attraction, Recruitment and Retention Strategy (MARS) program.

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