PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SUMMER 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 9
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MAKING IT BIG - As world consumption of materials steadily increases, mining education graduates are few in number and highly pursued.
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 visits.

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 positions.

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McCarter, chair of Utah's department of mining engineering, says that he and his colleagues also struggle to change the outdated impression that mining is unsafe and environmentally unfriendly.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 left.

Mining enrollment and degrees awarded: 2004 Enrollment: 504 | 2004 BS degrees awarded: 85. 2003 Enrollment: 480 | 2003 BS degrees awarded: 96. 2002 Enrollment: 514 | 2002 BS degrees awarded: 118. 2001 Enrollment: 530 | 2001 BS degrees awarded: 162 . 2000 Enrollment: 558 | 2000 BS degrees awarded: 169. Source: American Society for Engineering Education). ABET Accredited Programs in Mining Engineering: University of Alaska, University of Arizona, Colorado School of Mines, University of Kentucky, University of Missouri, Montana Tech of the University of Montana, University of Nevada-Reno, Pennsylvania State University, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, University of Utah, Virginia Tech , West Virginia University. (Source: ABET, 2004 SME Guide to Mineral and Material Science Schools)


Sales Pitch

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," he says.

Brady Johnson, Virginia Tech mining and minerals engineering student, is preparing a core sample prior to a series of strength tests for the Rock Mechanics Laboratory. Perhaps 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 says.

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 mining engineering student Mark Bowling underground in the UA San Xavier Mine looking at a formation of the mineral chalcanthite. The 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 industry today.

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 tuition.

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 students.

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.

 

FEATURES
THE REAL WORLD - By Anna Mulrine
CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT - By Jeffrey Selingo
MAKING IT BIG - By Corinna Wu
RISING AGAIN - Photographs by Sylvia Plachy
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