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U.S. seeks to rebuild mining workforce

Metal Tech News - May 27, 2024

Policies and investments hinge on an incoming labor pool that sees mining in a modern light.

With Washington's policies and cash infusions in full force to accelerate fair trade mineral and processing partnerships and develop a domestic supply, the U.S. mining sector must quickly find and train a new workforce to keep the industry producing.

"The U.S. must ready the next generation of mining engineers, metallurgists, and geoscientists to develop the secure, transparent, and high-quality critical minerals supply chain that will underpin our economic and national security," said Danielle Woodring, director of legislative affairs for SAFE's Center for Critical Minerals Strategy.

Bringing mining home

The United States began outsourcing mining to other countries during the 1970s, when massive protests and environmental awareness hit the mainstream. Ironically, this resulted in shifting the extraction of minerals and metals essential to modern living to countries with less stringent environmental and labor regulations.

Between 1979 and 1983, domestic metals mining shrunk by four billion dollars, according to a 1984 Business Week article titled The Death of Mining. The mining workforce also plummeted, dropping by more than half in two years.

"The death of mining wasn't just because of the struggles of the mining operation," said Stephen Enders, head of the mining engineering department at the Colorado School of Mines. "It was a geopolitical view in the United States at that time that the minerals can come from somebody else's backyard."

"Forty years later, the paradigm has shifted back," he said.

The American public's opinion of mining, however, has yet to catch up.

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The mining industry is struggling with an image problem that prevents it from attracting young talent.

With many Americans equating mining with environmentally suspect activities and brutish manual labor, the sector is struggling under an outdated image problem that does not accurately reflect an industry that is fast evolving, with industry leaders establishing serious green pledges and adopting cutting-edge technologies in automation, electrification and machine learning.

Last year, 71% of mining leaders reported that the talent shortage has impeded production targets and strategic objectives, according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, while 86% experienced greater difficulties in recruiting and retaining workers.

"Mining is not currently an aspirational industry for young technical talent to join," the company wrote.

A shrinking pool

The U.S. and other western countries, including Canada and Australia, have not sufficiently maintained the talent pipelines to support their domestic value stream ambitions as nearly half of the current mining workforce is expected to reach retirement age over this decade and the lack of training programs has created less opportunity and awareness in the rapidly transforming field.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

"We're losing mine workers at a time when we really need to be ramping up mineral production," Kray Luxbacher, the head of the Mining and Geological Engineering department at the University of Arizona told Foreign Policy. "The scope is pretty massive."

Luxbacher has been a strong voice pushing for more investment in the next generation.

"We recruit students one at a time. We spend a lot of time with an interested student," he said. "I would happily spend an hour with an interested student in my office, just explaining the kinds of careers that we have, where you can live."

The U.S. mining workforce has already shrunk by 20.4% in the last decade, with the 14 domestic mining schools having collectively graduated roughly a little less than 200 mining engineers per year, meeting less than half of more than 400 needed each year.

"There's a serious need to strengthen our mining workforce," Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., said at a hearing last year. "If we don't take swift action to reverse this trend, there will be no way for American-made mineral supply chains to meaningfully compete on our world stage."

Rebuilding and rebranding

There is an "antiquated public perception of the mining industry and what mining does and how it operates," said Chris Keane, the director of Geoscience Profession and Higher Education at the American Geosciences Institute. "The million-dollar question for the industry is: How do they get people to change their attitude about mining?"

The Mining Schools Act of 2023 was introduced to allocate $10 million per year into a grant program to recruit new students. The bill, which is co-sponsored by 14 bipartisan senators, would also establish an advisory board to help evaluate those grant applications.

"Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, the United States has never been in a better position to utilize all of our mineral resources. In order to fully realize the benefits of both laws for our energy and national security, it is vital that we grow and train the next generation of miners who will help provide the resources needed to develop the energy technologies of the future." said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D- W. Va, and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Our country can mine and produce our resources cleaner than anywhere else in the world, and this legislation will help ensure that we can continue to do so by investing in mining programs and projects at schools nationwide."

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Only 14 U.S. universities maintain accredited mining and mineral development programs.

If signed into law, the Mining Schools Act would require the U.S. Department of Energy to establish a grant program to support domestic mining education from 2024-2031. Under the program, up to 10 grants will be awarded annually to schools for recruiting and educating mining engineers and other qualified professionals.

"Right now, the minerals and mining industry is facing a lack of college graduates sufficiently skilled in geological and engineering disciplines impacts our ability to provide the minerals that are vital to every aspect of our lives – and even cause us to be reliant on foreign sources for these materials," said Essential Minerals Association President Chris Greissing. "The funding provided in the Mining Schools Act would strengthen our domestic schools that offer degree programs that are vital to upstream mineral development and production, as well as recruit students that represent the next generation of the industry."


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