Dec '09/Jan '10

Surveying the future of industry

Educational institutions are equipping tomorrow’s mining industry workforce with a competitive edge

By M. Eisner

Graduate students carrying out field work in the Chilean Andes

To ensure Canada’s continued leadership in the global mining industry, attracting and keeping students in mining-related educational programs is critical. It is the only way to ensure that we have a skilled workforce for the future. Fortunately, Canadian post-secondary institutions are rising to the challenge, developing new strategies and relationships to remain vital, responsive and competitive in the education marketplace.

Over 50 schools across Canada offer courses, certificates, diplomas and degrees that cover every aspect of mining. From geology and mining engineering to mineral technology and environmental sciences, these mining-related educational options prepare students for a vast array of career choices. To get a sense of what is offered and how institutions are working to stay abreast of evolving market demands and student aspirations, we asked faculty members at a selection of campuses to walk us through their programs and to share their views on their students’ prospects.

Reputation and returns

Sandra Barr, acting head of the Earth and Environmental Science Department at Nova Scotia’s Acadia University, reports that enrolment in the geology and environmental geoscience programs is up. She ascribes this to the institution’s academic standing. “Acadia has a reputation for being an innovative place and always ranks one or two in the Maclean’s ranking,” she says. Barr’s department boasts relatively high numbers — 55 students in both geology programs, with eight at the graduate level.

Acadia graduates enjoy high returns on their substantial investment (Acadia is among the most expensive universities in Canada). “Our graduate students get jobs very readily,” says Barr. “Our master’s-level students are in great demand.”

Strong industry support

Enrolment in the University of New Brunswick’s geology department is fairly stable, according to department chairman Cliff Shaw. Graduate enrolment, however, has increased significantly, with a total of 31 students at the master’s and doctoral levels.

Shaw believes that the reason is related to the economic situation. “It typically happens at the beginning of bust cycles,” he explains. “Recent graduates are first in the firing line when exploration takes a nosedive. Being motivated and interested in geology, they simply return to do a master’s degree until the market picks up.”

A popular choice among students is the environmental geochemistry program. Starting with four students in 2000, the program currently has 14 students. Environmental geochemistry is also offered as an option in geological engineering, where it is, as Shaw explains, “more related to the actual design of tailing ponds.”

Such practical courses that address real-world issues are the core strength of the geological engineering program, according to Shaw. It also helps that industry has supplied funding for equipment such as laser ablation technology, as well as for students, especially at the graduate level. “Six or seven of our grad students are funded by mining companies. Even though we are a small department, per capita, we have more money from industry than anyone else,” says Shaw.

Incentives boost enrolment

In 2009, enrolment in the mining engineering program at Montreal’s École Polytechnique surpassed all records, reversing a troubling trend. “A few years ago we had a lot of problems with enrolment,” recalls Richard Simon, who oversees the mining engineering program. Fearing the cancellation of the program due to low numbers, the university took decisive action.

In 2007, after just eight students signed up for mining engineering the previous year, École Polytechnique hired Danielle Gagnon, a 15-year veteran mining engineer, and charged her with boosting enrolment. Thanks to Gagnon’s efforts, there are now 41 mining engineering students.

The French-language school has a number of incentives to attract students, including $3,000 bursaries for each student. Notably, the degree program includes three mandatory work terms, which also make it attractive. According to Simon, the importance of the work terms cannot be overstated. “The first work term is after the first year and it leads to jobs,” he says, adding that, upon graduating, about 80 per cent of the students end up working for the employer who gave them their first student job. That is why Simon is disappointed that many recession-hit companies have stopped offering student work terms. It has already lost him some students.

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