Gold Mine Kinross Fort Knox

In background, from left, Aaron Debrah, Brandon Holm, Jeremy Brans, David Pfau and Mike Sylvestre watch as Nathaniel Shepard, front, pours Fort Knox Mine's 8-millionth ounce of gold Oct. 9. 

Mining leaders expressed worry this month that without increased interest in the industry by young people, the industry will suffer from a lack of qualified engineers and metallurgists. As older engineers prepare to retire, the need for young engineers rises and the young engineers simply aren’t enrolling in mining programs like they used to.

There are only 13 mining programs in higher education across the United States. This number is close to half of what it was in 1982. Similarly, enrollment in mining education programs is down: there were 1,489 students in 2015 and only 874 in 2019.

Statements by Hugh Miller, president of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, one of the largest mining organizations in the country, in the past few months emphasized the need to stoke interest in the field. These statements were echoed locally by mining educators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“The industry is in an upward trend, but student enrollment in the United States, in Australia and Canada and other places, is going down,” said Tathagata Ghosh, chair of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering at UAF.

Nationwide, SME is working with programs across the country to fund fellowships and scholarships to help address the problem of enrollment and to fund what can be an expensive endeavor.

Ghosh believes the mining industry faces two crucial problems when it comes to recruitment. The first is imagery: the public, Ghosh said, doesn’t understand that there are a variety of well-paying opportunities in mining and that the field incorporates new technology. The second is location: since few mines are located near cities, it is difficult to attract young employees who are less inclined to move to more remote locations.

Miller made a similar point, stating that fewer students from mining families or with historic mines were being encouraged to get into mining. “If we can’t successfully recruit students from our own communities, it’s hard to see how we can attract kids that know little to nothing about the industry,” he wrote in the December issue of Mining Engineering.

Enrollment in computer sciences are up Ghosh said, but the competition for employment in the fields that use those degrees is fierce. “They want a cozy job, in a city. That’s kind of the narrative around it. But the jobs might not be there,” he said.

Encouraging Alaska’s students to study and work in mining is good for the state, Ghosh said. He said that while the university graduates a lot of students in technological programs, it’s not as helpful to the local economy.

“There are no tech companies here,” he said. There’s also little in the way of manufacturing. “What we have is natural resources. So how do we get students, or young high schoolers involved in the mineral industry from a very early age, so they will get interested in becoming mining engineers, metallurgists or something else?”

Local industry representatives are making efforts to reach out to students in high school and middle school. In the interim, Ghosh is hoping to make more connections with mining companies in Alaska and to decrease his department’s dependence on state funds.

Miller wrote that it was important to market the mining industry differently, and that educational programs needed to provide “scholarships, meaningful internships, and novel educational experiences.” Further, he wrote the industry needed to change to attract post-millennials. Specifically, he suggested, “Mentoring, continuing education, revised labor and talent management practices, and changes in how companies operate are all necessary. While some companies are making a significant effort in these areas, we have a long way to go as an industry.

Contact staff writer Cheryl Upshaw at 459-7572 or find her on Twitter @FDNMcity.