Over a span of nearly forty years consulting to the mining industry, I have worked with many mining engineers. On the basis of long experience, I can say with confidence that mining engineers spend most of their time in meetings, listening to consultants and staff and making hard decisions about the mine they work for or manage.
When they are not in meetings, the mining engineers that I have known drive around the open pit, or descend the underground workings where they walk around to see if things are going as they should. And if things are not going as they should, they talk (mostly) to the people who are supposed to be making things go properly and the mining engineers remind them of their duty and the consequences of failing to live up to their duty.
Sometimes the mining engineers leave the mine and go to the office building in some distant city where the head office is located. There they meet with even more senior mining engineers, accountants, and lawyers to discuss the legal and financial operation of the mine they manage back home. Then they go to a fine restaurant for supper and a night in an expensive hotel to fly back, first-class, to the mine the next day.
I do not wish to imply by this brief overview of the daily life of the average mining engineer that their work is easy. For the variety and challenge lies in the diversity of topics and issues the mining engineer will face each day in those meetings and round-the-mine travels. Today the mining engineer will be faced with a decision to purchase or not to purchase land next to the mine where there may or may not be additional ore to expand the mine. The next day the mining engineer will be asked by the chief exploration geologist for an increase in budget to enable more drilling to be undertaken on the land that was purchased the day before.
That afternoon the permitting department will demand additional staff to negotiate the permits for off-site drilling and disposal of the resulting muds from the drill rig. The health and safety officer will be insisting that the necessary health and safety plans are not in place and that new work be put on hold until the necessary documents are approved.
The next day the topic of the meeting is a shortage of equipment to expand pit operations to the projected high-grade zone. Then a meeting on dwindling capacity in the tailings impoundment and the cost of expanding the impoundment or using the old worked-out open pit. That leads to a full-scale review of operating budgets with the planners and accountants just arrived on site from head office. They are under instructions from the directors to increase profit by cutting expenses; none of the mill managers or equipment operators can see the sense of this, for they all need new equipment to replace the old stuff.
To check if the mill superintendent really does need new equipment, the mining engineer takes a trip to the mill. He has never really understood the intricacies of this mill and he knows the mill super is smarter than he is and has been around a lot longer. They banter good-naturedly for a while. They walk around the equipment which all seems unrusted and humming. Production numbers are steady; the preventive maintenance program is functional. The equipment replacement costs are huge, and the mill super persuasive. The mine manager knows what to do: kick the decision up to the head-office mechanical engineers. Let them take the fall or praise for wrong or right decisions and the need to find more money.
The mining engineers that I write of here, may have received their degree at Colorado State University, Queens, the University of British Columbia, or one of the other few places that still award mining engineering degrees to a small cadre of students. They will have studied, like most engineers, basic maths, physics, chemistry, and calculus. Then a few courses in basic mining theory: what makes an underground mine; the essence of open pits; basic blasting theory; and maybe a bit of finance and accounting. Maybe a short course on environmental studies, social policy, sustainable propaganda, and community relations.
The mining engineering student would have helped out at a few conferences where professors and consultants market to each other via papers based on case histories and ideas recirculated from decades past. The student will have met the leaders of industry and recruiting agents for big and mid-sized mining companies. Well before graduation, the offers would have come in. Salaries of from $65K to $100 K depending on the size of mine, the personality of the student, academic record, and remoteness of mine site. The best students would have been flown first class to Nevada and the mine of choice, put up in a fine hotel in Toronto, and promised car and first month of rent on an apartment. Thus the entry into the mining work place.
Let us call her Linda. She graduated as a mining engineer in Australia. She met and married her husband at university where he did a masters in mine planning and operation. She preferred the work face: into water-proof clothes, down the shaft, through the mud to the drills and rock. I met her at a mine in the far north of Canada to which she and her husband were transferred. She was then chief mining engineer and had to guide me and her underlings through upper management review of a decision to expand the tailings facility. She was beautiful, smart, and very demanding. We always prepared thoroughly for meetings with her, for she could bore down into the details faster than any other person that I have ever met.
Yet she was kind and gentle. When we were ready to present to upper management, she grilled us and made us practice until we were word perfect. Then she would introduce us to the assembled finance committee and support us to success. I readily admit that it was her skilled judgment about what to say and what to leave out that led us to win every budget battle and get senior management approval for all our proposals.
Now she and her husband are in London, England at company headquarters and I am told that she is guiding the making of multi-million dollar decisions each day. I can believe that, for she has the skill. Her husband is still in a back engineering office planning new mines and avoiding the spotlight.
There are generally few mining engineers at a mine. There are sure to be more mechanical, chemical, and civil engineers than mining engineers at a typical mine. For there is a lot more mechanical, chemical, and civil work than mining work to be done at the typical mine. The mining engineer however is the boss, the mine manager, the chief mine planner, the executive officer, the primary decision maker. The mining engineer aims to leave the management of the mine to a younger souls and move up the ladder to head office, there to buy and sell mines, negotiate deals, and set budgets and schedules.
Some mining engineering graduates go on to do a masters degree—and then go into consulting, for a masters is the working degree of consulting to the mining industry. And if you are a mining engineer without a masters but about ten years practical experience at mines, you too can come to the city to work for a consultant. I have worked with mining engineers in consulting who design the underground workings or layout the new open pit mine. They run computer codes that simulate material movements, calculate operating costs, and schedule repairs. They use computer codes to calculate slope stability, quantify overburden stripping ratio, and hence establish the economics of an ore body in a cold northern land.
A month ago, I sat in a tall glass building in Santiago, in a cool room of expensive finishes. The consultant mining engineers presented fifty slides on the cost estimate for a new mine to be brought into production in 2020. The consultants had reviewed three previous cost estimates made by other consultants in the past five years and had sought to bring precision and accuracy to the wildly varying previous estimates. The new consultants spent twenty minutes on the issue of the daily cost to feed a worker at the fly-in, fly-out camp. At least one mining engineer had spent the past month researching this issue.
We civil engineers then botched things up. We presented brief, detail-less slides telling that the cost of tailings disposal would exceed $2 billion. “Do you have detail for that?” the client’s mining engineers asked. “Not really,” the reply. “For the cost depends on so many things out of our control, and in the control of you the mining engineer, that we thought it best for you to do it.”
The mining engineering consultants jumped at the chance and are still working on this one as far as I know.
The point is that mining engineers span the range from the most detailed oriented to the highest, big-picture thinkers. As in all branches of engineering, there are the creators, the dreamers, the idealists, the philosophers, the soldiers, the warriors, the workers, those who inspire, those who manage, those who lead and those who follow.
Some work in the dust of the veldt, in the heat of the desert, in the snow & cold of the north, in the rain of the tropics, and in dangerous and remote places. Some prefer the delights of big cities, rapid transit, impossibly high rents, and school costs, and the comfort of multi-stories, air-condition towers. Some like the gray, cool stone of research universities. Some like the hustle of organizing conferences and competing as academics with honest consultants.
Some write books, some write EduMine courses, some churn out academic papers on socially responsible mining and sustainable development. Some go work for investment firms where they use advanced statistics to pick potential stock winners and losers.
Some found their own junior mining companies. With geologists, they find new ore bodies, engage drillers, write press releases, list stocks, encourage investors, skim a few dollars, and succeed or fail as the market fluctuates in response to Chinese demand. Some junior mining company mining engineers go bankrupt. Some go on to fortunes, when they sell out to a mid-sized company. They thrill to the trek into the forest, and peering through a magnifying glass at visible gold in a core specimen. They thrill to the sound of a drill rig echoing in the canyon, the thud of a box of new core, and the geologist’s remarks on grubby paper: ore heavy with silver.
Some mining engineers prefer the three martini lunch with rich investors come from European and Arab capitals. They thrill to the haggle of money invested, dividends promised, the daily movement of share price, the speculation of the take-over bid, and the large check that quantifies the gamble and its success. They wear pin-striped suits of impeccable cut set off by ties of silk and high price. They pity their cousins in torn jeans, T-shirt, steel-toed boots, and the dust of a hot land rover somewhere in an African country. Certainly they would not change places one with the other.
I have never met a mining engineer working for a regulatory agency. Admittedly there are some in MSHA, OSHA, and other Washington agencies overseeing the USA mining industry. Their work is critical to mine safety, and their publications (which I read avidly) are impeccable and impressive. These are a small part of the mining engineering fraternity. They prove the immense diversity of mining engineering pursuits and endeavors. They demonstrate that if you choose to study mining engineering that is only the beginning. Once graduated there is an infinite variety of opportunities out there just waiting for you to choose one or more lifestyle that suites your instincts, interests, abilities, and life-style choices.
Keep in mind that you do not have to study mining engineering to enter the mining industry. You could become a civil engineer and develop mining infrastructure: the roads, bridges, shafts, structures, and tailings facilities that are key to mining. You could become a mechanical engineer: manage the shovels, the trucks, the crushers, and spreaders, and the pipes and pumps of the mine. You could become a chemical, process, or metallurgical engineer and oversee extraction of minerals from the ore. Or become an environmental engineer and take care of air quality, surface water and groundwater quality and all the other potential impacts of a mine on its surroundings.
Lawyers and accountants, human resource professionals, and health and safety specialists are needed at the mine. If you like working with people and communities, study community relations and then go mining. All of these professions bring personal and financial rewards at mines far and near.
As a mining engineer, you may have to lead and manage all these professionals. In addition you will have to deal with labor unions, politicians, NGOs, terrorists who would burn down your core shack, and journalists come to write sensational stories of the impact of the mine on native peoples. You will have to be the face of the mine and the mining industry in the community. You will have to open schools and hospitals, attend sports events, and give presentations at learned conferences.
You as a mining engineer will travel far and wide. You will work in Africa, Australia, Nevada, Chile, and the cold parts of Sweden and the Yukon. You will move your family often and your wife and children will attend many schools and learn many languages. You will be part of a small, but international community. You will meet at the SME conferences in western cities of the USA. You will share stories of hardship, challenges overcome, of mines opened and closed, of political movements and environmental forces that are even now changing the way we see and implement mining.
You will thrill to elections and the appointment of a new EPA administrator. You will fight law cases to the Supreme Court to get the permits you need to open a new mine and close an old one. You will travel the wilds of Spain and the places where they have mined gold for 2,000 years as you seek to get community support to reopen an old Roman mine and provide jobs to but 400 of 4,000 applicants thrown out of work by crazy German bankers intent on cutting national budgets. You will have to articulate the benefits of mining to native groups who believe fish transcend profit; to historians who value ruins over new mills; to the rich who live around big copper deposits and do not want their retirement homes impacted by heavy equipment.
In the next twenty years, as a mining engineer, you will have to redefine how we go about mining: do we only high grade and filter press the tailings to dry stacks? Do we avoid sensitive areas and only operate in remote deserts? Do we desalinate sea water to make mining possible in deserts where people would rather not live, or do we undertake perpetual water treatment in wet climates that are getting warmer by the year and subject to bigger and bigger storms and flood? Do we reopen historic mines in Spain and Romania where unemployment is rife? Or do we go to the Amazon and Zambia and deal with tyrants in Zimbabwe and South Africa who would nationalize our finds and our mines created by long education and hard work?
For the future of mining is not a repeat of the old ways. If we are to prosper as societies, we need to mine in new ways. And the future of mining and the benefits of civilization depend on the ideas and skills of mining engineers yet to be educated. I am optimistic. For I have children and grandchildren who reject my opinions and prejudices. So too I am privileged to work with young engineers who reject my ways and perspective. They and you, as a young mining engineer, will have to overthrow all that we know and do, and reinvent the world to make it possible for future generations to go on, survive, enjoy material benefits, and protect the world that is all we have and can pass on. Go mining and other engineering.