Careers in mining: More than meets the eye

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Installation of the #4 Shaft at the Lucky Friday Mine is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Imagine this is your work commute: You arrive at your office, don safety gear (including a respirator to protect you from poisonous gases), and enter an elevator crammed with 16 other people. Then, instead of heading up to your climate-controlled office, you are sent over a mile underground. There, you take an all-terrain vehicle that snakes through dark and dusty corridors while dropping another thousand feet deeper into the earth.

You finally arrive at a small, cramped space no more than eight feet wide, where the walls are radiating heat at 150 degrees and the humidity is close to 100 percent. After arriving at your office, you’ll spend the next eight, ten, or twelve hours working with heavy machinery, large drilling equipment, and setting off controlled explosions to extract valuable minerals that will be used to create household goods, equipment, cars, and objects we rely upon in our day-to-day lives.

If this work environment sounds appealing, then you might be well suited for a career as a hard rock miner. If it does not sound like your dream job, that does not necessarily mean that you should not consider the mining industry for a potential career; more than half of those employed in the mining industry are not actually miners. Careers in mining include geology, environmental science, information technology, engineering, and operations, to name just a few.

The next time you pick up your cell phone, start your car, or flip on the television, take a moment to appreciate that these wonderful modern day conveniences (and many others) are made up of dozens of raw materials that have been extracted from the earth. You have probably heard the story in which someone asks a child where milk comes from, and the child’s response is “from the grocery store” and not “from a cow.” In much the same way, many of us probably take for granted that some of our most important daily products, tools, and conveniences are not spontaneously produced from the likes of Amazon, Walmart and Costco, but rather from deep within some mountain as a raw material.

North Idaho has an economy steeped in history on the extraction of natural resources both above and below ground through the timber and mining industries. While these industries have become less prominent contributors to the overall economy of North Idaho over time, they remain significant to both revenue generation and local employment.

There are currently two active mining operations located in North Idaho, the Lucky Friday mine operated by Hecla Mining, and the Galena Mine operated by Americas Silver Corporation.

According to the most recent data available from the Idaho Department of Labor, local mining companies in North Idaho directly employ more than 1,000 people, with another 1,000 estimated to work in positions directly supporting the local mining industry.

More importantly, the mining industry offers some of the highest wages locally. The average annual wage of someone employed in mining in North Idaho in 2014 was $86,878, compared a region-wide average of $35,408.

The mining industry also invests heavily in construction and infrastructure expansion that benefits other local businesses, Hecla Mining is currently expanding the Lucky Friday Mine by adding the “#4 Shaft,” which is a $225 million investment that will extend the life of the mine for another three decades.

According to Luke Russell, Vice President of External Affairs for Hecla, the future of mining is focused on utilizing technology to make the mining process more efficient, safer for employees, and cleaner for the environment.

Wes Johnson, the Technical Services Manager at the Lucky Friday mine indicated that they have digitally coded and modeled the entire mine complex, allowing management to better visualize locations of mining activity and evaluate operational efficiency. Johnson hopes in the future they can utilize the digital model of the mine and specialized sensors placed on drones to complete exploration and mine inspection in areas that might be unsafe for human miners.

As the mining process becomes more invested in operational efficiency, technology, and focused on protecting the environment, the need for highly-skilled employees is rapidly increasing. There is a growing need for employees with skills in information technology and computer science to better integrate technology into the operations and management of the mining industry. Additionally, with stringent environmental standards becoming the norm for mining operations, employees with specialized skills in dealing with environmental planning and remediation are critical to the success of any mine.

Both North Idaho College and the University of Idaho offer degree programs and training in Coeur d’Alene that help prepare individuals for potential careers in the mining industry, including a new joint program in Computer Science and a fully online bachelor’s degree program in Environmental Science. Other programs in Geology and Engineering can be completed at the University of Idaho’s main campus in Moscow.

Although the importance of mining may not be obvious in our day-to-day lives, the fruits of the industry certainly impact our lives in almost everything we touch. To learn more about programs that might lead to a career in the mining industry call (208) 667-2588 or visit www.uidaho.edu/cda.

•••

Paul Amador, Ph.D., is the Director of Program Development at the University of Idaho in Coeur d’Alene.

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