Large dump truck in a Utah copper mine. RiverRockPhotos / Getty Images Hide caption
RiverRockPhotos / Getty Images
RiverRockPhotos / Getty Images
America’s mines are open for operation. Not necessarily for coal, but definitely for the critical minerals that the Biden government considers essential to economic and national security, such as lithium for powering batteries or aluminum for wind turbines.
But there is a catch. Companies struggle to hire miners.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in mining and geology is set to grow 4% from 2019 to 2029. As the demand for these minerals continues to grow, there are fewer skilled workers to fill positions in the industry.
“We need more workers,” says mining consultant Catherine Joyner. “It won’t be sustainable for our industry if it stays at the level it is.”
Like many employees in the United States, miners have used the pandemic to rethink their careers. Many have turned to new professions or have withdrawn altogether, says mining economist David Hammond.
Mining critical minerals and metals is no easy job. In both underground and surface mines, workers operate heavy machinery the size of houses and trade in explosives. On the professional side, engineers, metallurgists and mine managers design and coordinate mine operations.
Jobs in the industry are well paid. The average salary for an underground mining machine operator and extraction worker is $ 56,000, and mining and geology engineers earn more than $ 90,000, according to BLS as of May 2020. Workers who are interested in the job often stay for decades, says Joyner.
But the pay doesn’t always outweigh the emotional and physical stress of the job.
Rocky McGinnis, 30, worked in a gold and silver mine in Mojave, California for about eight months. He’d worked on various construction jobs for eight years and thought he’d love to work with metals. But after just a few weeks on the job, he was fed up. He was tired of putting CBD oil on his hands and back just to get a decent night’s sleep. He said he and his co-workers would spend their shifts talking about the kind of jobs they would take if they weren’t in the mining industry.
“It’s taken a huge toll,” said McGinnis, who now works as a broker. “If it had only been the job, I could have done it. But all the added turmoil really motivated me to study, to pass my real estate test, to get out of there.“
In addition to young miners like McGinnis who are quitting, the baby boomers are retiring.
Around 20% of workers in the mining, oil and gas sectors are over 55 years old, according to the BLS. According to a 2015 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, 43% of surveyed professionals in oil, gas and mining companies said that talent loss due to an aging workforce would become a problem in the next six to ten years. It’s now six years later, and Hammond says that percentage is much higher.
Recruiters are now scrambling to find skilled replacements to fill positions in critical mineral mining, says Russell Sullivan, executive partner at Accelerated Data Decision, a recruiting firm that works closely with mining employers. Geological engineering courses also have a hard time recruiting students, says Hammond.
Critical minerals have become increasingly important in recent years as they are key components in high-tech personal devices, green technologies like solar panels, and defense systems like jet fighter engines. The US imports the majority of its critical minerals, and both the Trump and Biden administrations have tried to encourage domestic mining of these minerals.
In order to fill the required positions, employers increase salaries. Nevertheless, young people are not pushing their way into the industry on a sustainable basis.
Sullivan says marketing is mainly to blame. The public still has a negative perception of mining – people still think of dirty miners working in dangerous conditions.
He says the stigma needs to be corrected as critical minerals are essential to the transition to renewable energy and green technologies.
It takes more than just a marketing push to keep younger miners, says Hammond. Education about the role of mining is needed.
Take a look at every item in your living room, kitchen or garage. Probably half of its parts were pulled out of the ground – the lithium from tiny phone batteries, the aluminum buried in coffee makers, the gold in television boards, says Joyner. They didn’t appear in the air.
“We have at least two generations who grew up on the Harry Potter concept of raw materials,” says Hammond, the mining economist. “You wave your wand and they just appear.
Savannah Sicurella is an intern at NPR’s business desk.