February 2013

Multi-dimensional man

Underground Mining Society Award winner Charles Graham connects industry with academia

By Correy Baldwin

“We have it in mind that we’re going to pursue one course and life takes us on different roads,” says Charles ­Graham, managing director at the Canadian Mining Industry Research Organization (CAMIRO). He is the first recipient of the Underground Mining Society Award, since the group was formed from members of CIM’s Metal Mining Society in May 2011. Since his early start with summer jobs in Labrador’s iron mines while studying mining engineering at Queen’s University, Graham has experience working on all sides of the industry and has garnered recognition through both his own mining engineering and research, and his focus on training young recruits.

Even as a student, Graham was not content with following a single path. He was always looking to dig below the surface. “I was a nut about cars, a gear head,” he says. “So my mindset was bent on the mechanical side of things.” He got to know a mining engineer who also ran the maintenance department at the iron mine. The two “got along like wildfire,” and soon he was working in maintenance. This early start and mentorship opportunity secured him a job as a mining health and safety inspector in Ontario. By the early 1980s he was Ontario’s senior rock mechanics ­engineer.

“That turned out to be a really interesting time, because we had all the rock bursting here in Sudbury that generated the Stevenson Commission in 1985, which looked into ground stability and mine rescue,” recalls Graham. “The whole place was just popping; it was just active, seismically. One of the recommendations of the Commission was that the Ontario mining industry take a stronger position and do more positive engagement with its own research and development.” The result was the creation of the Mining Research Directorate (MRD), which Graham joined as its first director. When MRD teamed up with other organizations in 1983 to become CAMIRO, Graham became managing director of the mining division, and has held the position ever since.

Today, CAMIRO coordinates re­search, linking industry to researchers, but, Graham says, satisfying the timeframe of both parties can be difficult. “Something has to give, in terms of the longer vision of research and how we can capture the needs of the industry,” he explains. “If I want to give a project to a master’s student for his thesis, it has to be an 18 month-long project – and yet we have to deliver in a timely way to the industry, otherwise the people we’re delivering to are no longer the people who initiated it.”

It is all a matter of working incrementally. “We have to decide what parts we can get done in a reasonable time,” Graham says. “We have to keep stuff coming to industry in rapid-fire, small chunks to let them know that they’re still participating, that their money is being well spent, that we’re asking the right questions and delivering the product they can use.”

Because of his position somewhere be­tween the ivory tower and the pit, Graham has a particular interest in easing students’ transitions into the workforce. It is a period of time when, he says, a lot of mining companies get their priorities mixed up.

“The problem is that entrance into the industry is directly related to the price curve,” Graham says, citing examples of companies laying off student workers midway through their training the moment the market turns. “My interest is how to counter those kinds of forces, how to assist young people.”

Graham advocates accommodating young trainees during downturns, as well as programs in which students’ transitions into the workforce are built into their educational program: a tapering out of academia and into the industry. “You have your skillset by the time you graduate,” he says. “Industry people have had a good chance to work with you, and you have an industrial mindset by then, plus you’ve never lost that willingness to learn.”

Find out about other CIM Awards.

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