Thursday, September 3, 2009

More thoughts on manpower and the Mining Industry

Yesterday I wrote about Paul Lang’s talk about the problems that the Mining Industry were having with recruiting new engineers into the business. Well today I was intermittently in the meeting as it continued with the comments of several more senior mining company officials, except only that, with faculty numbers being what they are, I had to leave to teach for part of the day. Nevertheless I did take into my class a valid comment by Bill Kennedy that in your daily life as an engineer you will use some 15% of what you learn in college – you will, however, be expected to know the other 85% (and I gave a personal example).

In the dinner this evening Diana Tickner of Peabody expanded a little more on the topic of the shortage of mining engineers at a time where the industry can anticipate little other than growth over at least the next decade. She noted that with the 129 mining engineers graduated in the US in the last year, and 110 in Australia there has been an inadequate replacement of retiring personnel, and thus starting salaries averaging $75,900 (high value being $84,500) have been needed to attract individuals and that there is sensibly zero unemployment in the US industry, and about 1.5% in Australia. This time around the industry has understood the benefit of retaining its skilled engineers (and the investment in that resource that the companies have made) and thus has not been laying them off in these tougher times, as they have in the past. And those that have left one job, have not found it difficult to find another. Those that now sit in the higher levels of the industry are only too familiar with the layoff strategies of earlier recessions, where holding 5 jobs in 10 years was not unusual, but which did not build company strength or company loyalty. This is one of the first recessions where she has seen this loyalty to engineering employees happen on a broader ranged basis. (Which is a comment – repeated by others – that the coal mining industry continues to see the future as very strong for their business. Essentially there is little else that can realistically replace the fuel on the scale that it is currently being used).

But to get students into industry is a matter of the perception that they have, of what the industry is. And in that regard, as I noted yesterday, the picture that the media paint of the industry, and the cries that are heard for its demise, cannot but impact the talent pool that is attracted to the industry. An earlier speaker today, Leigh Freeman talked, in part, of the contrast between the likely challenges facing, for example a PhD in EE of his acquaintance who spends his time doing research into a relatively small part of his field, and those who go into professions such as Mining, who face much greater challenges and who acquire greater responsibilities faster, and as a consequence are better rewarded. (Until that is you hit the management ceiling at around $180k where you move into a different market category where there become an increasing number of competitive individuals available, since you have largely passed above the threshold where it is technical capability that is most important, into the level where management and social skills are more valuable, and where, as a result there is much greater competition.)

Diana talked of the needs to recruit faculty – academia needs about 10 new faculty a year to fill positions, and yet there is an inadequate supply. Universities do not pay enough, and the rewards are lacking relative to the investment required to get that PhD so that the individual can be available to become a faculty member (see the starting salaries for a BS degree cited above). The industry needs not only new talent, but also new technology. But when the faculty numbers drop and student numbers rise (our freshman class may be the largest it has ever been) there comes less time available for research and innovation and the creativity required to solve the looming problems that come with meeting not only the energy but also the environmental needs that face the world.

Peabody, for example, sees an opportunity to generate biofuel to help retain the airliner fleets as conventional fuel sources deplete, but this will require the inputs and knowledge of a range of engineers. Their availability is becoming less certain.

In this regard I have been fortunate, as a researcher, to have worked in an area that saw the generation and growth of a new technology that is now one of the quiet revolutions that is changing the way that things are done in a number of industries. Yet the attitude of the mining industry to change was always such that it was difficult to get them to invest in such ideas. Others were more willing to provide larger sums of money more readily, so that while much the initial work was aimed at helping the mining industry, for the last 25 years it has been much easier for the research community working in this field to do work in other industries and to help them grow. Part of the lack of support came from the relatively low profits that parts of the industry made, but it has also been because of the conservative nature of the industry as a whole. In the current circumstance, it is hard to see the industry changing their general attitude to research, although with new generations and challenges coming along, perhaps there can be hope that such change will occur.

It will be interesting to watch and see how the industry changes. But it, and the Administration need to more deeply comprehend that you cannot mandate, nor can you legislate technical change. Without a period of investment in the research first, those changes cannot happen, because the answers will not have not been found. And without the presence of a sufficient and knowledgeable faculty it will not be as easy to know where to look for those answers.

1 comment:

  1. Changes cannot implement as easy as people think, it'll go in process to see its fine results..
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