Analysis: Miners face talent shortage as electric vehicles load demand for metals

Dec. 10 (Reuters) – University of Kentucky undergraduate Jonathan Little is among legions of students around the world that the mining industry can’t afford to lose, but has already.

Little, 20, was considering a career in mining, but instead chose to study a branch of engineering that will likely allow him to design truck engines. It was much more attractive to him than working in a coal mine, as many of his academic peers do after graduation.

“It’s not a career path that I want,” Little said.

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The choices made by Little and other students point to a talent shortage for the mining industry as it braces for a wave of retirements of aging workers. Later this decade, fewer graduates will have the skills to build and operate mines that produce lithium, nickel, copper and other metals to power voracious manufacturers of electric vehicles, solar panels and other technology. ‘renewable energy.

Enrollment in U.S. mining engineering programs fell 46% between 2015 and 2020, according to a survey by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SMME). The same problem plagues major mining countries like Canada, South Africa and Australia.

“We’re going to end up with people untrained to operate mines at a time when you really need to mine for the EV transition,” said Mike Armitage, who sits on the board of directors of fluorite miner Tertiary Minerals Plc. (TYM.L).

The talent shortage is hitting just as automakers prepare to build millions of electric vehicles. Many plan to have fully electric fleets by 2030. The batteries and wiring for all of these engines will require a major increase in metal production.

Many students are frightened, say professors and industry leaders, by mining’s historic reputation as a dangerous industry that pollutes the environment. This stereotype was reinforced just three years ago when 270 people died after the collapse of a tailings dam belonging to Vale SA (VALE3.SA) at an iron mine in Brazil.

AGING WORKFORCE

More than half of minors are over 45 and 20% are over 60 and near retirement, according to a Mercer study. The US government is form a committee to address “public perceptions of the nature of mining” and its aging workforce.

Meanwhile, the China University of Mining and Technology – considered the best mining school in this country – enrolled more mining engineering students in 2020 than the United States as a whole, largely to supply China’s growing coal sector, according to the SMME survey.

Today, universities, business groups and businesses in the West are scrambling to recruit new students as high school students finalize college applications and many freshmen begin to choose their field of study.

“If you’re new to mining, you have this weird perception of the industry that we are like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with pickaxes,” said Emilie Schouten of silver miner Coeur Mining Inc (CDE .N), which boosted student awareness.

CEO SEES “HUGE OPPORTUNITIES”

Concerns about the impending talent shortage even prompted Freeport-McMoRan Inc (FCX.N) chief executive officer Richard Adkerson to personally meet with University of Arizona students this year to influence their career choices.

“Mining today is not the mining that people historically thought of,” said Adkerson, who also chairs a global mining industry trade group. “There are so many great opportunities for young technicians to come in and make a contribution immediately. “

Universities are launching or expanding data analysis, autonomous driving, and computer programming courses for potential miners, not just geology and geography. They are also funding research into new ways to process minerals and fight climate change.

In the United States, the Colorado School of Mines built an underground mine to allow students to learn new technologies. At the University of Kentucky, where Little studies, graduate students began researching new ways to extract metals from old electronics.

In the UK, the University of Warwick has launched 50 qualifying training courses on electrification.

“COMMITMENT TO SUSTAINABILITY”

In South Africa, the University of the Witwatersrand – which has trained industry titans such as former Glencore Plc (GLEN.L) CEO Ivan Glasenberg – this year began offering a course on climate issues to mining students to reflect the growing interest in the subject, despite imports into the national economy.

The Western Australia School of Mines (WASM) is phasing out its petroleum engineering curriculum and transforming it to focus on renewable energy.

“Our mission is to create thought leaders … (who feel their) moral responsibility is to produce the materials we need to produce sustainable livelihoods,” said Michael Hitch of WASM.

This assignment prompted Tom Benson’s decision to join Lithium Americas Corp (LAC.TO) and help build what the company hopes will be the largest lithium mine in the United States, which aims to be carbon neutral.

“If you want smart people to enter this industry, you have to show them that you are committed to sustainability,” said Benson, who oversees the company’s internship program and heads its exploration division. “Mining must play an essential role in the fight against climate change.

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Reporting by Clara Denina, Ernest Scheyder, Helen Reid and Melanie Burton; written by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by David Gregorio

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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