Seeking future mining engineers

Virginia Tech explains how higher education can expand the mining talent pool to meet critical mineral demand.

Edited by Josephine Patterson

The mining industry is booming to meet the demand for critical minerals necessary for the green tech revolution; however, it is left digging deep to find highly trained mining engineers to keep up.

“If we’re going to achieve all the great things we want to accomplish as a society around clean energy production and storage while elevating the standard of living for billions of people, we will need to produce much more mined material,” said Aaron Noble, head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering, part of the College of Engineering.

“The alarming proposition is that the increase that is needed over the next couple decades is really unprecedented in human history.”

While the expanding demand for minerals is promising for the industry, Noble expressed concern that meeting it will require a highly skilled and competent engineering workforce that may not be readily available.

“Modern mining engineers not only need a strong technical background, but they also must have deep understanding of the environmental, social, legal, ethical, and other factors that define project success,” said Noble.

Despite the number of jobs and career options for mining engineers, college enrollment in this field is low across the country. Only 13 institutions, including Virginia Tech, offer accredited degrees in mining engineering and many are struggling with budget constraints.

“We’ve been seeing this for quite a while, this trend of young people not wanting to enter the mining sector,” said Noble. “Going forward, though, this challenge is going to become an increasingly significant business risk.”

McKinsey & Company supports that assessment. The global management consulting firm reported last year that 71% of mining leaders struggle to meet production targets and strategic objectives due to a talent shortage. Additionally, since 2016, the United States has seen a 39% drop in mining engineering enrollment, and more than 40% of survey respondents aged 15 to 30 would not even consider mining as a career.

From an educational perspective, higher education aims to expand the mining talent pool by increasing enrollment, which Noble said hinges on two main factors: closing the awareness gap and creating a sense of belonging.

Photo: Virginia Tech/Peter Means

Raising awareness
The majority of graduating high school seniors probably are not aware of the career possibilities in mining, and Noble said they aren’t the only ones in the dark.

“According to a survey of high school guidance counselors conducted by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, only 6% of respondents indicated they would suggest mining as a career path. However, more than 70% said they would if they had more information,” Noble said.

“It seems that people aren’t opposed to mining. They simply don’t know anything about it.”

Noble added that many science standards in K-12 schools don’t include information to help educate students about earth science as a career field, and then mining specifically, which is part of the challenge.

Cultivating connection
Prospective students may not know about mining as a career path, but Noble said even if they do know, misconceptions keep them from seeing themselves in the industry.

“As they always have, young people today want to work in exciting fields. They want to push the bounds of technology and make meaningful contributions to society through their work. The perception of mining – working long hours in a dirty and potentially unsafe environment – is generally not appealing to an 18-year-old,” he said.

Mining may need to rebrand in a way that appeals to a younger generation. Attracting new students requires collaboration between industry and education.

“We have all these parties with different interests, and we’re all doing our own things and we’re not working together,” said Noble. “It’s not to say we don’t work together. In Virginia, we work very well with our industry advisory board and we have areas where we work with industry very well. But when it comes to the issue of getting new students interested in the mining sector, all the universities work differently, and companies tend to be localized in their outreach. We’re not aligned in our efforts.”

Higher education institutions are working to bridge the lack of knowledge and to overcome belonging gaps with recruitment events focused on incoming first-year and potential graduate students, but this is one piece of a multifaceted issue.

“The mining industry for decades has had a culture of operating behind the scenes,” said Noble. “We want to be the backbone of society, but we don’t want people to know about us, so we’re not telling our good stories in more than a localized, community-focused way.”

Kathleen Troy, a junior who is also co-president of the department’s ambassador program, experienced support and camaraderie during an internship with a mining company outside of Hagerstown, Maryland. The transformational experience solidified her decision to choose mining and minerals engineering as a major.

“It was what we call a production internship. You were at the mine site every day in the field, and I really just enjoyed the people and how the industry worked,” said Troy. “It was all very relaxed and more like they’re your friends.”

In addition to internships, Troy had the opportunity to participate in mineral processing research with Noble, exploring how minerals are extracted from the rock, which involves chemistry. Troy said mineral processing hadn’t been on her radar as a career path, but she’s considering that route.

Future outlook
Noble is confident the mining and minerals engineering program at Virginia Tech will grow, but he said his department is one piece of a comprehensive and industry-wide solution.

“The challenge before us is immense. The mining industry has dire need for technology and talent, and the pace of change is unprecedented,” said Noble.

“We have extraordinary capability at Virginia Tech, and I am confident that with our industry partners and academic colleagues, we will rise to the challenge and tackle the problem with the urgency and efficacy that is needed.”

Related posts