November 2008

Student Life

From up North to Down Under: Innovative partnerships between industry and academics

By J. Wolgram

UBC mining students celebrate the success of their trip to Chile at the Minera Andina open pit mine.

The Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining at the University of British Columbia has long had an excellent, mutually beneficial partnership with the mining industry. In the last several years, the mining program at UBC has continually expanded to meet the growing need for mining engineers, both in Canada and internationally. Industry has responded by providing UBC students with more scholarships, student jobs, research grants and mentoring opportunities. As the job prospects for new graduates become more diverse and recruitment becomes more competitive, companies are looking for innovative ways of attracting and retaining new mining engineering graduates.

In September 2005, Rio Tinto and UBC established a program targeting students beginning their second year of engineering and first year studying mining engineering. The program had two facets: both a scholarship and a summer job placement were offered by Rio Tinto, with the prospect of extending the program for the duration of a student’s degree. Selection of recipients was based on student enthusiasm, communication skills, dedication to the industry and academic standing. The program would begin with a placement within Canada and provide the opportunity for further job opportunities abroad. The program also partnered with the UBC Engineering Co-op program, which would assist with job placement and coordination between the university and Rio Tinto.

As a new student in the mining program at UBC in 2005, I was honoured to be the recipient of one of two awards offered by Rio Tinto. Though very excited, I also confess to being somewhat nervous at the prospect of working for a large multinational mining company. Since that initial moment, any nervous sentiment has long since passed, but the excitement of working with a diversified company committed to sustainable development has continued to grow.

Over the past three years, I have had three different job placements with Rio Tinto. My first was at the Diavik Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories, working in the underground development engineering department. Next, I had the chance of gaining some exciting oversees experience with my second job at Northparkes mine in New South Wales, Australia. There, I worked in an underground block cave mine, both on a maintenance crew and in their geotechnical engineering department. My final work term was spent with Rio Tinto Copper Projects at their new Vancouver headquarters. I worked on major studies currently being conducted by the company and travelled to several of Rio Tinto’s North American operations.

Rio Tinto has continued the program, offered every year to second year mining and geological engineering students. Nikki Scott, UBC’s mining co-op coordinator commented, “The Rio Tinto scholarship program has been an incredible opportunity for mining co-op students to gain practical work experience and be exposed to the variety of operations and environments across Rio Tinto. There is no doubt that this program will continue to be a resounding success and a valuable part of our engineering co-op program.” Other companies are beginning to inquire about developing similar programs based on the Rio Tinto model.

The success of this program has significantly raised the profile of Rio Tinto throughout the mining department at UBC. “Rio Tinto’s  involvement with UBC has been mutually beneficial for both the company looking to recruit graduate engineers and students looking for practical engineering experience,” commented Allan Moss, general manager of technical services, Rio Tinto Copper Projects. Since the scholarship program’s induction, the company has hired additional students and several new graduates to work at operations in Canada and Australia.

Each year, senior mining students at UBC conduct a field trip to a foreign country with significant ties to the mining industry. Past trips have included Brazil, Poland and China, with the most recent trip being to Chile. The research trip is completely organized by students and funded through industry support and fundraisers. I had the incredible opportunity to be a part of the Chile trip and of experiencing the global nature of the mining industry. Rio Tinto, Xstrata Copper and Finning, the chief sponsors of the trip, played a crucial role in securing site visits and funding.

Industry support has thus been central to my own and my fellow students’ professional development. New and innovative partnerships between the mining industry and universities will only further improve the education and promote the development of well-rounded graduate engineers.

Vancouver native Jeremy Wolgram is a fourth-year mining engineering student at UBC. He plans on working for Rio Tinto’s Copper Projects Group when he graduates this year.

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