|By Corinna Wu
Julie Higbee, a senior at the University
of Utah, is in a position many of
her peers would envy. Months before
graduation, she has six job offers—from
places as far-flung as Indonesia
and Tasmania—and the interviews
are still coming. "The difficulty
is what to pick, not ‘Will
I have a job,'" she
says. Her major isn't computer
science or biotechnology, but mining
engineering—a field that had
its heyday three decades ago.
But this year, mining engineers
are finding themselves in demand
once again. Like Higbee, graduating
students are getting multiple job
offers. Starting salaries are going
up, averaging $55,000 and sometimes
including a signing bonus. Universities
with mining engineering programs
have seen a marked increase in the
number of companies making recruiting
According to data collected by
the American Society for Engineering
Education, only 85 people graduated
with bachelor's degrees in
the field in 2004. And research
done by Downing Teal Inc., an executive
placement firm, estimates that at
least 300 will be needed each year
for the next 12 years to fill available
This mismatch has put pressure
on mining engineering departments
to attract more students to the
field. They're stepping up
recruiting efforts and changing
curricula to keep up with the times.
M.K. McCarter, chair of Utah's
department of mining engineering,
says that he and his colleagues
also struggle to change the outdated
impression that mining is unsafe
and environmentally unfriendly.
"People just don't know
much about it," he says. "But
the fact of the matter is, without
mining, our society—our way
of life—would not exist."
Though mining is now a somewhat
obscure engineering specialty, that
wasn't always the case. During
the 1970s oil embargo, concern over
U.S. dependence on imported energy
sources prompted oil companies to
purchase coal mines, creating a
big demand for people to work there.
"So the schools just went
crazy and started producing all
kinds of engineers," McCarter
says. In 1981, about 700 students
earned bachelor's degrees
in the field.
By then, however, the energy crisis
had passed, and many mining engineers
had to look for jobs in other fields.
From that point, the number of yearly
mining engineering graduates plummeted.
By 1989, only about a hundred bachelor's
degrees were being awarded, and
the numbers have hovered at that
level ever since.
What's more, those engineers
hired in the 1970s are graying.
More than 60 percent of the members
of the Society for Mining, Metallurgical,
and Petroleum Engineers are over
50, and just 4 percent are under
30. The 300 or so yearly graduates
needed are simply to replace those
who will retire in the next few
years and don't account for
growth in the industry.
That trend was not unexpected,
says Mary Poulton, head of the University
of Arizona's department of
mining and geological engineering.
"What we didn't necessarily
anticipate was how big of an impact
China and India were going to have,"
Poulton says. "They are consuming
so many materials to keep up with
their manufacturing and infrastructure
development that the production
can't keep pace with the demand."
And so as mines expand and new ones
open up, new jobs are created for
people to run them.
As the demand for graduates declined
in the 1980s and 1990s, the number
of mining engineering programs declined,
too. Some merged with other departments
focusing on earth or environmental
sciences, and others closed down
altogether. The University of Idaho
shut down its program last year
for budgetary reasons. Even as demand
is up for mining engineers, small
programs still have to struggle
to survive. Now, only 13 accredited
programs in mining engineering are
Faculty members, student chapters
of SME, and companies are doing
their best to recruit new talent.
They give talks at high schools
and community colleges, and departments
offer generous scholarships. Tom
Novak, head of the department of
mining and minerals engineering
at Virginia Tech, says he and his
colleagues are not above doing "a
little marketing" during their
freshman orientation session. "A
significant portion of our students
probably didn't even know
that mining existed as a discipline
before they came to Virginia Tech."
To get students to attend the orientation,
they raffle off prizes (last year,
it was an Apple iPod), serve free
pizza and sandwiches, and set up
a trough so attendees can pan for
gold. "That's to get
them in the door. Then you have
to give a good presentation,"
partly due to that zeal, Virginia
Tech has the largest mining engineering
program in the United States, with
127 sophomores, juniors, and seniors
enrolled. Novak also says that keeping
up with industry trends has kept
enrollment steady, even through
the lean years. For example, they
brought companies to campus that
dealt in aggregates—the crushed
stone used in road and building
construction. "Ten years ago,
we didn't even discuss quarry
operations, whereas now, that is
an integral part of one of our courses,"
He also says that 15 years ago,
Virginia Tech's program emphasized
coal mining, since that's
where most students found employment.
Now, a quarter of their students
go into coal, and the rest go into
other areas, like aggregates or
metal mining. "It's
been traditional that the hard-rock
companies—the companies that
mine gold and copper out west—would
usually only interview at the western
schools," Novak says, "whereas
now, these companies are coming
here to recruit students."
University of Arizona is also making
major changes to its curriculum
to reflect the times. Starting in
fall 2005, the department is instituting
three new tracks in mining engineering.
The first deals with traditional
mining operations, with an emphasis
on the new technology used in the
The second track is called sustainable
resource development, which is "a
very big movement in mining,"
Poulton says. "Basically what
we're looking at is how you
develop mineral resources in underdeveloped
countries so that you fully develop
the economic potential in the area,
improve the standard of living,
preserve the environment, and protect
the health and safety of the workers."
The third track is called geomechanics,
which focuses on the underground
heavy construction industry. "As
you look at how much infrastructure
is going underground in the United
States, those construction projects
employ a lot of mining engineers,"
Poulton says. The difference is
that "what you're removing
doesn't have economic value;
what you're putting in does."
The University of Arizona has also
made it easier for students from
other states to major in mining
engineering. It joined the Western
Universities Exchange Program, which
starting in fall 2006 will allow
students in 15 states to attend
the University of Arizona at a reduced
rate. Instead of paying out-of-state
tuition, exchange students would
pay only 50 percent more than in-state
International exchange programs
can also provide valuable experience.
Virginia Tech sends a few students
each year to the European Mining
Course, a program held at four universities:
Delft University of Technology in
the Netherlands, Imperial College's
Royal School of Mines in London,
RWTH Aachen University in Germany,
and Helsinki University of Technology
in Finland. The students spend a
few months at each school, taking
classes with European mining engineering
Like the aerospace, petroleum,
and computer fields, mining engineering
has close ties to industry, and
so the job market grows and shrinks
with the economy. But as countries
around the world continue their
rapid growth, with no signs of slowing
down, they will fuel the need for
energy, building materials, and
precious metals—as well as
engineers who know how to mine them
out of the ground.
Corinna Wu is a freelance writer
based in Washington, D.C.