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Modern Mines Require Workers With More Skills

Machines have replaced people in much of the mining industry, changing the nature of mining jobs. While fewer jobs are up for grabs, skilled and educated people will always be in demand.

Have you ever gone off to summer camp and wished you never had to return home? Does the idea of working outdoors -- perhaps in remote areas or in the wilderness -- excite you? How about traveling to exotic locales, like Brazil, Indonesia or Russia? If you've said "yes" to all of these, you might want to consider a career in mining.

Long dark tunnels, men with pick axes, underground railroads and explosives -- that's what comes to mind when many people picture mining in North America. While this may have been the case 20 years ago, today's jobs in the mining industry have changed.

What's it like now?

Most people have the impression that working in mines involves digging around in a dark tunnel all day, covered with dirt and carrying a canary cage, constantly in fear of being buried alive under an avalanche of rocks and earth.

But the work isn't that dangerous these days, says Rob Mauer. He is an industry liaison and job placement advisor in the mining department of a college.

"A high priority is placed on worker safety," says Mauer. "Because you're working in remote sites that may not be in close proximity to hospitals, mines have to be extra careful in adhering to a high standard of safety procedures."

As well, technology has changed the way mining is done. For example, instead of digging into land, geophysicists use instruments to scan the landscape and tell them whether minerals are buried beneath the earth, says Michael Rowley. He is vice-president of operations at a mine.

"It's pretty automated," agrees Steve Kral, mining engineering editor at the Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Engineering (SME) in Colorado. "It's not backbreaking work. Nowadays, you have all the machinery, the software, the computers, to increase efficiencies and to keep costs down. The technological changes have been remarkable."

The use of technology means that mines now require people with advanced training and skills to operate sophisticated computers and machinery.

"It's a higher degree of training now for the operators," says Kral.

Working in a mine usually means living in a remote area, where you spend two weeks on site and two weeks back home. While you're on site, you live in company dormitories.

What are living conditions and accommodations like? "The quality of life is good," says Mauer. "At most camps, you'll find recreation rooms, a theater, a basketball court, a hockey rink. They provide you with good, nutritious food prepared by professional cooks."

How's the money?

Mining is one the highest paying industries in North America.

In the U.S., the average miner makes $60,000, according to the Washington-based National Mining Association. (That compares to the U.S. national average of $44,435 for workers across other industries.)

And the salary is only part of the picture.

"One of the benefits of working in mining is the opportunity to save," says Mauer. Because mine workers are based out of camps, food and housing are provided by the employer. "Essentially, you've got no expenses.

"This is a great way for students to save money for further education," adds Mauer. Students sometimes take a lower level position at a mine, save up, and then pursue an advanced degree in engineering or geology.

How do I get started?

The best way to get started is to learn more about the industry.

"We'll go out to schools to talk to students, not necessarily for recruitment purposes, but to tell them about the industry," says Kral. SME runs a program to send speakers to schools to talk about the industry.

If your school hasn't invited a speaker from the mining industry, try attending mining association seminars in your town (they're advertised in newspapers), or talk to mining company representatives at local job fairs. Most mining associations have representatives you can speak to and many supply career brochures.

A key decision you'll have to make is what kind of work you want to do within the mining industry. Do you like working with machinery? Becoming a drill operator is an option for you. Do you have an interest in occupational safety? Becoming a health and safety manager might be a role to research.

"It all depends on your preferences, your likes and dislikes," says Melanie Sturk. She works for a mining industry association.

Another consideration is how much schooling you're prepared to undergo. Becoming a mining engineer will take at least four years of university. On the other hand, becoming a drill technician might take three to six months of training. Or you might consider taking a short vocational course in order to take a lower level position, see how you like the industry, and then return for further schooling.

While mining involves digging into the earth, it isn't mindless work.

"We're really talking about problem-solving work," says Kral. "It's basically about how we can mine a certain area, economically, efficiently, in an environmental way. The people I come across are very dedicated to the profession and to the industry. I'll be talking to these people, and after hearing the stories they tell, I have to say, these are really smart people."


National Mining Association
Info on the industry in the U.S.

Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration
Career guidance booklet from the Society of Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration.

Original resources, links and an Internet meeting place for anyone interested in mineral exploration

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