June/July 2013

Feast or famine

Geology students confront a tight job market

By Eavan Moore

Last summer, Ravneet Gill, a 2012 University of British Columbia geology grad, worked in Yukon’s White Gold district, with an exploration team. Job prospects this year are thin though, with junior miners struggling to raise money | Courtesy of Ravneet Gill

Despite forecasted labour shortages and high expectations of job prospects for students with earth science degrees, this summer’s job market has given many young geologists cause for frustration: faculty and students report that the placement rates for graduates and for current students plummeted this year, intensifying fears of a lost cohort.

At the end of April, economic geology professor David Lentz could not name one employed student in the earth sciences department at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). “We have never seen it this bad,” he said. “Last year we had close to 100 per cent of the students hired by this time, in third- and fourth-year. I think it’s fair to say that it’s going to be an abysmal year for students getting expertise and helping to pay off their student loans.”

Softening metal prices and investor caution have choked off exploration budgets and kept mining companies from making student hires. Junior companies simply do not have the capital to spend, said Ryan Montpellier, executive director of the Mining in Human Resources Council (MiHR).

Since juniors are traditionally a good starting point for entry-level geologists, their cuts have hit new graduates particularly hard. Ravneet Gill, who graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2012, worked with a junior explorer until the downturn began. “If you start off as a relatively inexperienced grad at the very bottom, you can grow as a junior grows,” she said. “Now it’s a lot harder for grads to get hired and to be given a chance.”

Montpellier counselled patience during this lull. “As quickly as this changed, it could change right back in six months, and we could all be talking about skills shortages and talent scarcity again,” he said. “I think it’s just a question of weathering the storm. The long-term job prospects for people in geosciences and mining engineering are extremely good in the mining sector. And that’s the message we’re trying to get out.”

That message has reached students. “I was warned that it was often a cyclic market,” said Chelsea Squires, a geophysics student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who recently found work doing seismic interpretation in the oil and gas sector. The downturn came as more of a surprise for UNB economic geology student Emily Palmer, but she also believed that the market would recover.

Meanwhile, Palmer and other students had suggestions for companies looking to attract and engage youth. A centralized online job database might help link students to the work that does exist. Industry could also share important experience by sponsoring skills workshops on university campuses. Gill, for her part, recommended that a dedicated website could teach candidates how to network better within this industry.

Gill herself has extensive contacts that enabled her to land a five-month contract job helping organize this year’s Association for Mineral Ex­plor­ation British Columbia’s annual Mineral Exploration Round­up. But she admitted that she has apprehension about her career. “I like this industry enough that I want to try and stick it out,” she said. “But there are definitely times when you ask yourself, ‘Is this what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life? If I can’t even get started now, do I really want to try fighting for something that’s going to be unstable later on as well?’ So you have that bit of fear in the back of your mind.”

Lentz pointed out that students and exploration companies should use the downcycle to build up their knowledge base. Besides his role on the academic front, Lentz is also director of an exploration company and encourages companies to hire students to perform data compilation and quality control tasks. Companies could thus catch up on the data backlog created during busy boom times, while potentially adding value to prospects and allowing young people to gain industry experience.

Lentz noted that government lobbying efforts could improve the situation as well. While federal government support already exists in the form of science worker wage subsidies and public hiring, the Geo-mapping for Energy and Minerals program and the Targeted Geoscience initiative are both due for extensions. There is no mention of either in the proposed 2013 federal budget.

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