June/July 2009

Leaving no rock unturned

PDAC workshop provides practical training to future geologists

By B. Dalglish

Back in the classroom for some hands-on work

Call it exploration’s version of the classic “three Rs” of education. The three most talked about topics at this year’s third annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s annual Student-Industry Mining Exploration Workshop (S-IMEW) were: the economics of resource cycles and their impact on geology graduates hunting for jobs; the environmental impact of the mining industry, especially in Sudbury where the effects of decades of nickel smelting have been reversed over the last 25 years; and the entrepreneurial desire already taking hold of a few students to eventually form their own companies.

It was these “three Es” that engaged the 24 top geoscience students selected to take part in the  third annual installment of the hands-on workshop that took place recently in Sudbury, Ontario.

The intense, two-week workshop began with an introduction to the wide variety of careers open to geoscientists and an explanation of venture capital financing available to the entrepreneurially inclined. It then touched on such topics as exploration-grid and government-style mapping, exploration geophysics, geochemistry, core drilling and logging, as well as data handling and management. A junior exploration geologist employed by S-IMEW’s patron sponsor, Barrick Gold Corp. in Chile, also took part in the program.

Walking the talk

Students were taken on a series of exciting field trips, first in the Sudbury area, to Xstrata Nickel’s smelter complex, two of FNX Mining Company Inc.’s mines, the Sudbury Basin and its historic O’Donnell ore roasting beds, as well as the Cobalt Mining Museum. Travelling to Quebec, the group went on underground tours of Agnico-Eagle’s Goldex and LaRonde gold mines near Val-d’Or, and took a detailed geological tour of the world-renowned Noranda region.

In all, more than 40 industry leaders spoke to the group including Keith Barron, co-founder of Aurelian Resources Inc., a junior exploration company that discovered a large gold deposit in Ecuador and was bought out by Kinross Gold Corp. for $1 billion last year. Barron described the setbacks and challenges he faced in his career before the discovery in Ecuador.

Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt’s closing keynote address looked to the future of space exploration and discussed the potential for mining helium-3 from the moon for use as an energy source.

Matt Moss, a 22-year-old student from the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver, who will graduate with a Mining Technician Certificate, took a two-week break from a course project of designing an open-pit mine to take part in the workshop. “It’s been really good and the speakers have been fantastic — way over and above what I expected,” said Moss. “It’s a chance to see how they apply what I’ve learned in school. It’s also been good to talk with the other students to find out what their schools are teaching. For example, I’m unfamiliar with geophysics — I haven’t taken any courses — so I really got a lot out of the geophysics day; I would have liked more.”

During the workshop, students were told that in the future, exploration will need to go deeper underground to find new deposits and as a result, during their careers geologists and geophysicists will need to work more closely than they have in the past.

Preparing for the future

The workshop was designed to maximize the students’ exposure to a rich range of experiences, said Felix Lee, co-chair of PDAC’s human resources development committee, who helped S-IMEW founder and committee co-chair Scott Jobin-Bevans co-ordinate the 2009 event. “PDAC is the voice of the exploration community in Canada, and the committee’s objective is to maintain a strong and robust industry here,” said Lee. “Right now, one of our chief mandates is to prepare for the labour shortage that we expect to face in the next few years.” Forecasts suggest that between 60,000 to 90,000 people will be retiring or leaving the industry in the coming years. “

S-IMEW was designed around the components of the mineral exploration cycle,” said Jobin-Bevans, who heads several companies involved in mineral exploration and geological consulting. “But it goes beyond the technical and academic aspects of the industry. Our goal is to provide the students with networking opportunities and to help develop their skills so they are better prepared as they start their careers.”

As part of his four-year B.Sc. in earth sciences at the University of Waterloo, 24-year-old Jon Rigg took several courses in geophysics and will be pursuing a M.Sc. in geology. Rigg is not immediately concerned about job prospects because he has a summer job with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), mapping on the Melville Peninsula in Nunavut. But the cyclical nature of the industry is on his mind. “To be honest, I don’t think all my classmates understand this; I didn’t really appreciate it until I started working,” he said.

Speakers like Barron and Brian Bengert, senior geophysicist with Vale Inco in Sudbury, who described how they handled the boom-bust nature of the industry during their careers, were particularly inspiring, Rigg said, adding that he would like to get even more information about economics and finance. “We don’t get much of that at school,” he said. “But, let’s face it, that’s what’s going to put food on our tables.”

Karen Grey, a 26-year-old with a year to go before she gains her B.Sc. (Hons) in geology from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, was one of the six women in the group. Grey was thinking about practicalities, too. “Cycles mean you have to be careful with your money,” she laughed. Exploration appeals to her more than research or teaching, she said, because she prefers to be active and outdoors rather than in an office. “In exploration, the conditions can be really tough,” Grey added. “When I think about it, I think ‘Ah, I don’t know if I could do that.’ But after it’s over, you’re so glad you did it. That’s what I like. I like the challenge and I want to keep learning.”

It seems that these students might add another ‘E’ to their list: exploration.

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