Nevada mining workforce remains a concern as demand for essential minerals increases
A Nevada Gold Mines employee works inside the Turquoise Ridge Mine located near Golconda in southeast Humboldt County. Photo: Nevada Gold Mines
In 2018, the Silver State made up about 77% of the gold and 28% of the silver mined in the United States, according to the Nevada Mining Association. Last year, the state ranked first in non-fossil mineral production with 11% of the country’s total with a value of $ 9.14 billion, according to the US Geological Survey.
The industry, however, struggles to tap a specific element that is critical to its success: new workers.
In Nevada, approximately 15,000 people are employed by the state’s mining sector. NVMA President Tire Gray said the industry is putting “around 500 jobs where it should be” – and it has been for years.
The need for more miners is only growing as the United States seeks to secure the national supply chain for rare earth elements and other important minerals in electric car batteries and renewables such as lithium, Gray said.
“There is a need to fill the jobs that we currently have open, and there is going to be a need to fill the jobs that are going to be created as a result of increased demand in the mining sector,” said Gray.
To that end, Gray pointed to the proposed lithium mine project at Thacker Pass in rural northern Nevada, located in Humboldt County near Orovada, about 80 km northwest of Winnemucca.
Atop a long-dormant volcano in northern Nevada, the giant pit is said to be the first new large-scale lithium mine in the United States in more than a decade. The mine, which is proposed to be built on federal leased land, could help alleviate the near-total dependence of the United States on foreign sources of lithium, Gray said.
That is, if the labor shortage is also addressed.
“They’re going to need construction workers to develop their mine, but then they’re going to need around 400 full-time employees to operate the mine,” he said. “Where are they going to get these 400 people when we are already short of 500 people?”
Stopping, he added succinctly, “We need workers.
“There is $ 50 million in economic activity that we are missing just by opening those 500 jobs,” he added. “Filling those jobs also increases tax revenue, not only because of the people making the money, but also because a mine, in theory, would be more profitable if you could fill that last shift. Some mines would prefer to have three shifts, but they can only do two. “
Labor issues are not unique to Nevada. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mining and geological engineering employment is only expected to increase by 4% between 2019 and 2029.
As demand continues to increase for essential minerals, there are fewer qualified employees to fill vacancies. Meanwhile, like many employees in the United States, the miners have used the pandemic to reassess their careers. Some have turned to new professions while others have completely retired.
Just ask Nevada Gold Mines, a joint venture between mining giants Barrick Gold and Newmont that employs more than 7,000 people across Silver State, ranging from drillers to data scientists.
“As with many other industries right now, we are seeing labor shortages,” a Nevada Gold Mines representative wrote in a statement provided to the NNBW. “We are fortunate to experience unprecedented growth in our business. However, it also adds the challenge from a workforce perspective.
“We believe the immediate reason for this was the pandemic and the resulting cultural change in the United States. After the disruption caused by the pandemic to all aspects of people’s lives, like every other business in the United States, we are seeing some of our workforce reconsidering their lifestyle choices and choosing to make a change.
And this despite high paying jobs in the industry. In Nevada, the median annual salary for an underground mining machine operator and a mining worker is $ 52,400. It almost doubles for mining and geological engineers ($ 93,800), a segment of the workforce that earns more than $ 156,000 a year, according to May 2020 figures from the BLS.
Yet young people are not entering the industry at a sustainable rate, officials say. The median age of workers in the mining, oil and gas industry is around 43, and about 20% of the workforce is over 55, according to the BLS.
In addition to the challenge of attracting new talent to the industry, Nevada mines are being dug in remote areas of the state.
“Attracting people to live and work in rural communities… is a challenge,” according to the Nevada Gold Mines release.
In light of this, Gray said NVMA and mining operators are redoubling their efforts to recruit and develop a workforce in urban centers across the state like Las Vegas and Reno. Meanwhile, he said the NVMA was working to prepare mining towns like Elko, Winnemucca and Ely for what it might be like to have more people, especially those from diverse backgrounds, coming to their communities for a living. and work.
“Being able to pull from our urban areas is important,” Gray said. “It helps us diversify the industry geographically. And, historically speaking, our rural communities are not as diverse as our urban communities, so if we actually recruit more from those communities, hopefully we’ll see an increase in diversification.
A PROBLEM OF PERCEPTION
Many of the challenges in the mining industry – labor or otherwise – stem from a perception problem, Gray said. Some people just think of miners covered in dirt and soot working in dangerous conditions, using outdated machinery blowing clouds of black smoke.
“Unfortunately, most of the time people still think of the industry as the industry of the 1860s or even the industry of the 1960s,” Gray said. “When, really, we’re really at the forefront of technological advancement. We use the most advanced and available technologies to excavate materials in the safest way.
Technology has changed historic mining practices, from virtual reality mapping of orebodies, to electric vehicles and autonomous fleets, to increasing employee safety and mine site productivity. Miners are also starting to run on solar energy and are using closed-loop systems to limit water consumption.
“Yes, we admit it, we move a lot of water, but we use very little water,” Gray said. “Usually, we actually use less than 5% of the water we transport. “
The mining industry’s adoption of environmentally friendly technology and practices is something the industry is working to educate the public about.
After all, Gray said the stigma of mining workers “just killing the earth” needs to be addressed, especially with the essential minerals so essential in the transition to renewable energy and environmentally friendly technologies.
“We have to understand,” Gray said, “as we want this green technology and this future, there has to be an understanding that mining is the first link in this. And without mining, we don’t get this. that we want – we don’t get solar panels, we don’t get electric vehicles. ”