* Most mining-related engineers hired before graduation
* U.S. mining grads earn about 50 pct more than college
* Admissions tripling at Canadian mining schools
* Deficit of mid-career mining professionals dire
* Geologists face more challenges, lower pay than engineers
By Julie Gordon
April 15 When Travis Howard started his degree
at the Colorado School of Mines four years ago he decided to
pursue a double major in mechanical engineering and metallurgy
to give himself the best chance of landing a high-paying job
when he graduated.
Turns out he had nothing to worry about. The 21-year-old,
who dropped his mechanical classes to focus on mining after his
second year, has accepted a job with Kinross Gold Corp at
a starting salary of $64,000 a year plus bonuses.
With graduation still a month away, "pretty much everyone is
sitting on an offer or two," said Howard of his classmates,
adding that some students were juggling four or five offers.
In fact, students at the Colorado School of Mines are some
of the most employable in the country - 94 percent of 2011
graduates from the mining engineering, metallurgy and materials,
geological engineering, and geophysics programs have jobs.
The average starting offer across the four departments was
$65,868 a year, well above the $42,569 median that the National
Association of Colleges and Employers expects first-time job
seekers with college degrees to command in 2012.
The sky-high starting wages for fresh graduates highlights
the difficulties faced by mining and exploration companies to
find and retain skilled labor. In fact, mining CEOs often cite
the labor crunch as their No. 1 cost pressure.
The problem is rooted in the low metals prices of the 1990s,
when gold was worth $350 an ounce, and mining was the last
choice for engineering and science students.
"When the mining industry was not in vogue, the colleges
didn't get the numbers coming in," said Nick Eastwood, president
of MinSouth and a consultant at Hunter Personnel. "So they shut
their courses and got rid of the people who taught it."
Fast-forward two decades, gold is worth more than $1,650 an
ounce and there is a yawning shortage of mid-career
professionals. The problem will get worse over the next decade,
as the current crop of senior engineers, geologists and mining
"When they go, the replacements just aren't there," said
Eastwood, adding that most people working in the industry now
are either aged 50 or more, or have less than five years
experience. "There's a leadership problem looming."
The risk is that companies will end up simply not having
enough skilled people to staff their project pipelines, and that
could mean some will never come to fruition.
If new mines are shelved, it would put more pressure on the
world's current metal resources, and that could send commodity
prices, already near record levels on demand from rapid
urbanization in China and India, even higher.
For resource-rich countries such as Canada, Australia and
Chile, along with developing nations such as Mexico and Ghana,
fewer mines equates to lower royalties, fewer jobs and tax
shortfalls, denting public coffers.
The prospect of a fast-tracked career and a hefty starting
salary has students flocking to mining schools. The Colorado
School of Mines, which also offers a range of non-mining science
and engineering degrees, gets more than 11,000 applications each
year and accepts less than 1,000 students.
In Canada, admissions to the top mining schools have nearly
tripled in three years, helped by salaries that can be even
higher for graduates who move abroad. Recruiters say six-figure
starting rates are increasingly common in Australia, where
mid-career engineers make more than $200,000 a year.
Indeed, the job market there is so hot that Australia has
loosened its immigration policy to allow more highly skilled
mine workers in on short-term visas, a type of reform that
Canada is also considering.
"Ten years ago we were lucky to have one or two students
applying," said Ferri Hassani, a professor of mining engineering
at McGill University in Montreal. "In some years it was that
bad. But this year alone 250 people have applied to mining."
But the rising supply of students brings its own problems,
as bigger classes means more competition for the limited number
of summer jobs in the field.
"We're all looking for those four-month roles," said Omar
Aboulezz, a third-year mining engineering student at Queen's
University in Kingston, Ontario. "There's a lot of students here
who still don't have summer jobs."
Students who have industry experience ahead of graduation,
even just a four-month internship, get more offers and command a
higher starting salary than their peers, experts say. They also
have a head start on completing their professional designation.
For their part, companies that offer summer internships can
secure a loyal workforce years ahead of competitors who only
look to hire graduates.
Most companies that came to Queen's University this year
looking to recruit new graduates from the Robert M. Buchan
Department of Mining left empty handed, said Courtney Squires, a
fourth-year mining engineering student.
"A lot of people in my class are returning to places they
worked in the summer," said Squires, who has taken a job at
Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd's Meadowbank mine in the
northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, where she interned in
"I think that if companies invested more in (students) and
created more student jobs, they'd probably see less difficulty
in finding new graduates," said Squires. "We have room to be
picky about where we choose to work."
MINING THE FUTURE
It's a message that industry is starting to get. Kinross,
now offers summer internships and runs training and mentorship
programs to help new graduates move from entry-level to future
leaders as quickly as possible.
"Companies need to be innovative in the way in which they
are bringing entry-level talent into an organization," said Amy
Grace, VP of global talent acquisition for Kinross. "The
entry-level university talent is the talent of the future."
But not all talent is created equal. While Kinross has more
engineering jobs than it can fill, the Toronto-based mining
company does not hire many junior geologists, a field that has
become popular with young people looking to capitalize on the
mining boom. Admission requirements for geology and earth
sciences are less stringent than for engineering programs.
That has left a crop of new geology graduates struggling to
find permanent work, said Russ Pysklywec, chairman of the
geology department at the University of Toronto, noting both
lofty expectations and the fact that most entry-level mining
geologist jobs are short-term contracts.
"Maybe our students are kind of unrealistic - they do expect
very high salaries coming out," said Pysklywec. "I think pushing
$90,000 to $100,000 - to them $60,000 would be not enough."
That's certainly higher than the reality for Caroline Klein,
an exploration geologist who got her job with San Gold Corp
nearly two years ago and started at $65,000 a year.
Klein, who now makes $75,000 a year plus bonus, fields
regular calls from headhunters, but the 25-year-old is sticking
with her current job - at least for now.
"Ideally I would like to live where I work so I am home
every night," said Klein, who works a two-week rotation at a
remote camp in eastern Manitoba. "But I'm really happy I went