Despite Utah Disaster, Mine Majors Go On
Forbes - NY,USA
September 3, 2007
Butte, Montana — Jared Bartel arrived at Montana Tech this month for a final semester that will take him to graduation and a job as a mining engineer.
Six months ago, Bartel firmed up a position with a Wyoming coal mine where he will be paid upward of $50,000 a year. His career aspirations remain as strong as ever despite the Utah mine disaster that focused new attention on the dangers of extracting resources from rock.
"There are inherent risks with mining," said Bartel, 23, of Hamilton in southwestern Montana. "But it's not nearly as dangerous as many jobs out there."
His attitude was common among freshmen and upperclassmen alike as mining students arrived on the Tech campus late last month while six men remained trapped in Utah's Crandall Canyon coal mine after a cave-in Aug. 6. Another collapse, 10 days later, killed three rescuers and injured six.
Officials at Montana Tech and mining schools elsewhere say the Utah disaster is unlikely to chill interest in a field brimming with opportunity in areas such as mine development, planning and administration. They say students tend to see themselves as invincible, and mine accidents reinforce the importance of their work as engineers, jobs that can send graduates underground alongside miners.
"Those accidents demonstrate the need for more and better engineering," said Rick Sweigard, who oversees mining engineering instruction at the University of Kentucky, one of 13 U.S. schools with accredited programs in the field.
Mining fatalities increased 19 percent last year, in part because of West Virginia's Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 people, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Oil and gas extraction is included in the mining category and accounted for the most fatalities. Looking at broad industry sectors, the department found mining trailed the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting group in deaths per 100,000 people employed.
Ron Brummett, career services director at the Colorado School of Mines, said job prospects for mining engineers are the best he's seen since he arrived at the Golden, Colo., campus in 1993. Last year's class had a 92 percent placement rate upon graduation, and within six months the rate was 100 percent.
In the 2006-07 academic year, the 13 accredited schools conferred about 130 bachelor's degrees on students who majored in mining engineering.
What happened in Utah "underscores the need to know your stuff" and is no deterrent to a career in mining, said Janet Robinson, who at age 50 is a freshman in Montana Tech. Previously a loan processor, she became interested in the mining program after visiting the campus with her son, a freshman in a different program.
Another student, Heather Buettner, said the Utah disaster colored her outlook, at least a bit. Buettner, who transferred out of the school's nursing program and into mining this year, said she won't work in an underground coal mine when she is an engineer a few years from now.
Besides coal operations above and below ground, opportunities for Buettner and other graduates may include jobs at metal mines, sand and gravel operations, transportation projects with underground features such as tunnels, mine safety and enforcement and mine reclamation.
Students here and at other campuses must take safety classes, with some schools using idle mines nearby for training.
"If they start volunteering at the (school) mine, they get safety instruction as soon as they show up on site," said Mary Polton, head of mining engineering at the University of Arizona.
Safety is part of the curriculum in the sophomore and junior years, and includes students at the university mine removing a "victim" in a staged rock fall, Polton said. As part of the simulation, the fire department responds, reporters ask questions, a state mine inspector shows up and an investigation begins right after the emergency response.
For students who satisfy these and other requirements for a bachelor's degree, job opportunities abound.
"It's safe to say the demand exceeds the supply by about three times," said Jim Taranik, director of the engineering and earth sciences school at the University of Nevada-Reno.
Some trace the shortage back 25 years, when there were more mining engineers than jobs. Enrollment in college mining programs slid, and some schools dropped their programs altogether.
Now many engineers are retiring and there aren't enough newcomers to replace them. Add the demands of a strong mining industry enjoying good prices for commodities, and the supply shortage becomes that much worse, said Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association.
The University of Kentucky program now enrolls about 110 students, topping 100 for the first time in some 25 years, Sweigard said. He attributes part of the rise to recruitment. For the past five years or so, a university representative has visited Kentucky high schools to promote mining studies.
It's not unusual for newly minted mining engineers to command $55,000 or more, signing bonuses of $10,000 to $20,000, relocation money and sometimes even housing allowances.
For Bartel, who looks to start soon at the Wyoming coal mine, his summer experiences working in an aboveground mine showed him how much he will enjoy his new profession.
"What happened in Utah has not deterred me in any way," Bartel said