The cyclical nature of our industry is something we have long since come to terms with, but the extreme double-dip over the past seven years has been a harsh reminder of how quickly things can change for the worse. The larger companies knuckle down to focus on production, with an emphasis on reducing costs in any way possible, looking to mergers and acquisitions to grow. New mine development is critically reviewed and put on hold where either the project economics or the corporate vision dictates the preservation of cash. Exploration, if sustained, is focused more on brownfield opportunities that can deliver ore to the existing plant, and greenfield exploration teams are slashed to the absolute minimum – or worse.
Of course, it’s not just geologists who suffer – the pain is felt across the very wide spectrum of professionals who drive the industry. Those who have managed to survive in the industry for long enough to have saleable track records often swell the ranks of the service sector as consultants, taking whatever tasks can see them through the downturn until the companies can see the economic light of day and invite them back into the fold. But how many get lost along the way, having decided that yet another downturn is the final straw, and move into agriculture, retrain as teachers, serve pizzas, or just call it a day?
At the young end of the spectrum it is even more demoralizing. Young geoscientists and engineers with perhaps a couple years of experience are just beginning to move up the learning curve, flushed with professional enthusiasm, only to find that they are the earliest casualties of cutbacks – a realization that they are truly expendable. And of course, this feeds back to their even-younger counterparts, who are considering university training leading to careers in the industry only to realize that the future could be a minefield of uncertainty and pain. How many have quickly refocused on some other area of science or engineering and so denied the industry the bright new talent that is essential for a sustainable future?
This leaves our industry facing two absolutely critical dilemmas: how to attract and then retain young talent to grow with the industry, and how to nurture the mid-career professionals who are essential to the future leadership. The need for succession planning at this top end of the spectrum is possibly the most serious challenge of all, as without the drive and foresight of our most capable professionals, the industry will founder. A recent review of the sector by recruitment specialist Stratum International noted that mining professionals tend to retire earlier than those in other industries and that, as the current generation of baby boomers approaches retirement age, the industry is facing a demographic time bomb that will have a major negative impact if not managed appropriately.
![SEG student field trip to the Punta del Cobre mine, Chile.]()
Both Stratum International and the Mining Industry Human Resources Council have observed that 40 to 50 per cent of the mining workforce is aged 50 or older. Stratum notes the efforts of many organizations “to retain the older workforce for longer, using pension incentives, flexible working patterns and extra benefits, to keep experience within the business and transfer their knowledge to the next generation of leaders.” Yet it cautions, “This, however, is no solution if younger professionals are not being attracted or retained within the industry, or if older workers are unwilling or unable to pass on their expertise.”
To address this learning gap, there are numerous learned and professional societies around the world that meet the interests of geoscientists. Many offer career guidance as well as providing continuing professional development.
Membership in the Society of Economic Geologists (SEG), one such society, is open to all geoscientists with an interest in economic geology. This includes a large number of professionals drawn from industry, government and academia who are dedicated to advancing our understanding of the genesis of mineral deposits and putting this knowledge to the test in the search for the next big discoveries. With its headquarters in Littleton, Colorado, the SEG has a growing membership of approximately 7,000 geoscientists, residing in more than 100 countries. Canada is particularly well represented with some 1,300 members, of whom nearly 500 reside in British Columbia. To ensure the retention of and continued professional development for the mid-career geoscientists who will be the next generation of industry leaders, the SEG provides annual senior management courses and organizes a wide range of short courses, workshops and lectures. Some of these are held in the excellent training facilities at the SEG’s headquarters, but many more are delivered at venues around the world. In the first half of 2015 alone, the SEG had already delivered short courses on the geology of gold deposits at Mining Indaba in Cape Town, the geology of copper and gold deposits at PDAC 2015 in Toronto and greenstone belt metallogeny at the Joint Assembly in Montreal.
![chart: Age profile of senior mining industry to a general manager or higher | Candidate database, Stratum International]()
Field trips to major mines and mining camps are also a key ingredient of the ongoing training of professional geologists. Trips planned for late 2015 include a short course on gold mineralization in Ghana, coupled with a field trip. There will also be six field excursions linked to the SEG’s major annual conference, which will be held in Hobart, Tasmania, in late September, with the theme “World-Class Ore Deposits: Discovery to Recovery.” Nine short courses are also a key element of the Hobart meeting, ranging from reviews of Carlin-type and skarn deposits to interpretation of aeromagnetic data and geometallurgy. A different and very positive perspective on the challenges and rewards of leading from the front is provided by a series of video interviews with key people in the field of economic geology, accessible via the SEG’s website at segweb.org. These can’t fail to inspire those who want to succeed, no matter their stage of career.
The SEG actively promotes entry to the profession by encouraging the establishment of SEG chapters within university departments. The SEG provides some modest funding to kick-start the chapters, also ensuring that at least two SEG Fellows (one from the students’ faculty and one from industry) agree to provide support and guidance. Funding is available for field excursions; this year, it allows students to investigate alteration and mineralization in Iceland and Sweden and to visit a range of mineral deposits and active hydrothermal systems in North Island, New Zealand. In addition, industry funding, channelled through the SEG’s Foundation, is used to support at least one, and often two, student dedicated field trips each year that attract international participation. SEG members are encouraged to present lectures to chapters, and there is an active mentoring system to support younger members.
Recognizing that many universities do not teach economic geology, the SEG is also in the process of compiling a modular course of introductory lectures, spanning global metallogeny through individual deposit types, that can be delivered by SEG members when visiting the institutions. At the more advanced graduate and post-graduate levels, significant funding is provided via the SEG Foundation’s Graduate Student Fellowship Program and Student Research Grants. Strong selection criteria ensure that the most able young geoscientists are encouraged to develop their interests in economic geology. In summary, the SEG is playing a critical role in recruiting, retaining and inspiring young geoscientists and providing the ongoing training throughout their careers that will enable them to eventually assume the reins of leadership. The corollary is that continued investment by industry is essential to ensure that professional organizations like the SEG can provide the career-development opportunities that foster these leaders.
![Learning transferable skills close to home: Nisga’a students Aaron Lewis, Codey Stewart, Alfred Stewart, Leona Stewart, Christipher Willie, Bruce Azak, Robert Stevens and Richard Benson studying terrestrial ecosystem mapping near the Nass River. | Northwest Community College School of Exploration & Mining]()