The climate case for a career in mining

The clean energy transition requires minerals mining, but young workers are reluctant to join an industry known for exploitation.

A Stanford University program seeks to reinvent mining for the clean energy economy by using advanced data science tools to help companies find and extract critical minerals like lithium in a more sustainable manner. The Stanford Daily photo by Kyla Figueroa.

This article was published by Grist on Jan. 31, 2024.

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Mansur Arief never imagined himself working in mining. As an artificial intelligence researcher finishing a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University, he developed safety algorithms for self-driving cars. But then he took a postdoctoral position at Stanford University, where he met Jef Caers, the director of the new research program Mineral-X. Caers’ program seeks to reinvent mining for the clean energy economy by using advanced data science tools to help companies find and extract critical minerals like lithium in a more sustainable manner — and by developing protocols to engage local communities at the exploration phase, so they can decide whether or not new mining should be permitted on their land.

Arief was fascinated to discover that his skillset — developing AI algorithms that make complex decisions from real-world data — could be applied to searching for the minerals desperately needed to build out clean energy technology. (From 2017 to 2022, demand for nickel and lithium, which are essential components in the batteries that power electric vehicles, jumped by 40 per cent and 300 per cent, respectively.) He’s currently involved in a Mineral-X project focused on the strategic design of critical mineral supply chains for the United States. Eventually he hopes to take on a larger role in another early-stage project that aims to reduce the mining sector’s carbon footprint in his home country, Indonesia.

“I believe this is a new field that requires lots of attention, and it has huge potential moving forward,” Arief told Grist.

However, Arief’s interest in mining makes him an outlier among young professionals. In the U.S., as well as other mining powerhouses like Australia and Canada, the mining industry is facing an unprecedented workforce crisis as today’s youth choose not to pursue careers in a sector they see as stagnant, hidebound, and out of touch with their values. Enrolment in university programs that train mining experts is cratering, and companies are struggling to attract new talent to replace their aging staff. The blue collar mining workforce of drillers, machine operators, and others who actually extract the minerals faces challenges, too. To beef up domestic critical minerals mining, the U.S. will likely need more of these laborers. It remains to be seen whether there are enough young people willing to replace mine workers on the brink of retirement today, much less grow the workforce to meet skyrocketing demand.

“Mining, and anything related to mining right now, is less attractive on average to young people,” Jim Faulds, who directs the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, told Grist.

The mining industry’s poor reputation has arguably been earned. In many parts of the world, the industry has devastated local ecosystemsupended Indigenous communities, and exploited its workers. Yet in order to meet international targets for slowing climate change, the world needs enormous amounts of lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, and other metals that are key ingredients in clean energy technologies. Securing these commodities could mean opening hundreds of new mines worldwide.

To meet this need, the industry is racing to address shortages of young experts with the technical skills needed to discover mineral deposits, develop mines, and operate extraction sites. That includes the geoscientists who identify and characterize mineral deposits to help companies determine if they are economical to mine, the mining engineers who determine the best way to get mineral-rich rocks out of the ground, and the metallurgists tasked with separating minerals of interest, like cobalt, from everything else inside those rocks. Across each of these specialized fields, Faulds said, the mining industry is feeling a workforce squeeze.

New workers “are getting scooped up immediately,” he added.

That sort of hiring demand, Faulds said, usually translates to increased enrolment in the  technical training programs that churn out these professionals. But that’s not what’s happening. According to the American Geosciences Institute, a nonprofit umbrella organization for geoscience professional associations, 27 per cent of the existing geosciences workforce is expected to retire by 2029. Without enough new graduates to replace them, the organization projects a shortage of approximately 130,000 workers by the same year.

Not all of those lost geoscientists would have worked in mining. But given that the number of students completing degrees in mining disciplines has been falling for years — alongside the number of new faculty hires and university mining programs — experts believe a talent shortage is coming into view.

“Anecdotally, I expect there to be a shortage [of economic geologists] in the near future if not already,” Graham Lederer, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Geology, Energy, and Minerals Science Center in Reston, Virginia, told Grist. “Mining engineering and extractive metallurgy are facing similar, if not more severe, workforce issues.”

Indeed, the number of mining engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. has fallen 39 per cent since 2016, according to a 2023 report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, while the number of mining and mineral engineering programs nationwide has fallen from 25 in 1982 to just 14 today. The trends are so stark that Deborah Ross, a member of Congress representing central North Carolina, raised the problem at a recent Congressional hearing on establishing domestic supply chains of critical minerals, noting “we’ll likely not have the workforce … to fulfill our national mineral needs.” Earlier this month, the National Academies of Sciences hosted a workshop to discuss how the U.S. can meet the workforce needs of the domestic minerals sector.

The problem isn’t limited to the U.S. Australia is the world’s top producer of the lithium needed for electric vehicle batteries, but interest in mining engineering has plunged even more precipitously there, with program enrolment falling 63 per cent since 2014. In Canada, a top producer of the battery metal nickel, 70 per cent of young people who responded to a recent poll said that they “probably” or “definitely” wouldn’t consider a career in mining — higher than the percentage who said they wouldn’t consider careers in oil and gas. The UK’s mining workforce is also aging fast: According to a 2022 report by the nation’s Mining Education Forum, a staggering 80 per cent of mining and mineral processing engineers are now over the age of 50.

There are a host of reasons mining has lost its luster. But a key factor experts emphasized in interviews with Grist is the industry’s reputation for polluting the planet and exploiting its workers, in a quest to dig up things we either don’t need or that are actively harmful.

“The mining industry keeps mining coal and diamonds and gold to make money,” Caers, the Mineral-X director, told Grist. “People don’t want to get involved in that.”

A mining engineer by training, Caers cut all ties with the oil and gas sector in 2022 to focus on critical minerals for the energy transition. He believes new technology, combined with strong environmental stewardship and socially responsible development, is key to reinvigorating youth interest in mining. Many of the students Caers works with, like Arief, have a background in computer science or artificial intelligence, and are now learning how their skills can be used to help locate new deposits of critical minerals in the enormous datasets collected by geologists.

“There is, in fact, a lot of interest in critical minerals, and there’s lots of interest in using new technology,” Caers said. “But the mining industry doesn’t tap into that enthusiasm.”

In addition to failing to prioritize critical minerals extraction over cash-cow commodities like gold, Caers feels that the industry at large isn’t advertising itself enough on university campuses like Stanford, which have a large number of tech-savvy students who want to work on climate solutions.

A few startups are bucking the trend. The most prominent is KoBold Metals, a Bill Gates-backed minerals exploration company and Silicon Valley’s first mining unicorn, a term for a privately held startup valued at over a billion dollars. KoBold, an industrial affiliate of Mineral-X that has financially backed the latter and collaborated on its research, is developing machine learning and artificial intelligence tools to scour the Earth’s crust for new deposits of lithium, copper, cobalt, and nickel. Its staff of about 200 employees includes roughly equal numbers of geoscientists, data scientists, and software engineers, according to KoBold president Josh Goldman. While a few years back recruiters at KoBold might have needed to spend a lot of time explaining why the company’s mission mattered, today “it’s in the zeitgeist,” according to Goldman.

“Everybody’s worried about lithium supply, everybody’s worried about copper,” he added.

Goldman acknowledged that potential young hires often have “some hitches about joining a mining company.” But he said KoBold is typically able to assuage their concerns by explaining its ethical principles, which include only doing exploration and extraction in places where it can get strong community buy-in. “That is a very frequent topic of conversation,” Goldman said.

A photo of Nth Cycle’s standalone facility in Fairfield, Ohio, which is expected to begin full-scale deployment of its metal refining technology before summer 2024.
Nth Cycle’s standalone facility in Fairfield, Ohio, is expected to begin full-scale deployment of its metal refining technology before summer 2024. Courtesy of Nth Cycle
Another startup that’s bringing young people into the mining sector is Nth Cycle. It works with both mining and recycling companies to extract critical minerals from scrap metal, electronic waste, and mine waste using its novel “electro-extraction” technology, which replaces traditional high-heat smelting with an electricity-driven filtration process to separate and refine metals. Company founder and CEO Megan O’Connor says that the company’s 35-person staff is composed mainly of fresh-out-of-college engineers who “never thought that they would ever be in mining.” But Nth Cycle’s mission of developing more sustainable approaches to extracting and recycling the metals needed for the clean energy transition struck a chord with them.

“We are sustainability [and] circular-economy-related, but focus on doing that for the mining industry,” O’Connor told Grist. (O’Connor was a 2022 Grist Fixer.) “That’s definitely how we’ve seen people get excited.”

But these startups are the exception rather than the norm in an industry dominated by large multinational firms that mine a wide variety of commodities worldwide and tend to adhere to local labor and environmental standards, even when those standards are poor. And it remains to be seen whether the broader mining industry can clean up its act enough to attract the young talent needed to support the energy transition — especially in more traditional fields like economic geology and mining engineering.

Finding top-tier geologists with years of experience in mineral exploration “is pretty difficult already,” Goldman said, citing a “talent drain” from the industry in the 2010s when new, high-quality discoveries dwindled and major mining companies reduced their exploration efforts. As KoBold begins to develop its first mine — an underground copper and cobalt mine in Zambia — it’s already struggling to find local experts with the skills to design and build it, Goldman said.

“For us, it’s important not to just have global talent in mine design and mine building, but Zambian talent in leading that project,” Goldman said. But with the nation not having built a large new underground mine in decades, “that’s really hard.”

As hiring challenges loom in the U.S. as well, lawmakers are stepping in to try to bolster the nation’s workforce: A provision in the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act calls on the National Science Foundation to make new funding opportunities available to train undergraduate and graduate students in mining engineering, while a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate last year, the Mining Schools Act of 2023, would require the Department of Energy establish a grant program to support domestic mining education. (The bill hasn’t passed out of committee yet.) Faulds, of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, called the Mining Schools Act “a start” but warned that the $10 million in funds the bill authorizes every year for eight years isn’t a “huge amount” when spread across the entire country.

In addition to technical experts, the mining industry will need blue collar workers to support additional critical minerals extraction. Today, there are approximately 375,000 people working in the minerals mining sector and another 97,000 working in coal mining in the U.S., according to Conor Bernstein, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association. Many of those workers are employed in jobs like construction, drilling, trucking, ore processing, and equipment maintenance. If the U.S. is going to ramp up production of critical minerals, this blue collar workforce will likely need to grow, although exactly how much will depend on technology trends and domestic mining policy.

“However you game the estimates … the number of blue collar workers our industry will need in the coming years is poised to increase,” Bernstein told Grist.

At the same time, the mining sector will face widespread retirements by the late 2020s, according to a 2014 report by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration. “The challenges identified in that report have now collided with surging mineral demand driven by the energy transition,” Bernstein added.

Whether the industry will have the same difficulties finding young people to work blue collar mining jobs that it faces recruiting technical experts is unclear. But there are other trends at play that could help critical minerals companies find the workers they need: The U.S. coal industry has been cratering for years, creating an economic void that needs to be filled in coal communities nationwide. Many of the coal miners now facing layoffs or early retirements could be retrained to work in lithium or nickel mining or processing, said Erin Bates, the communications director for United Mine Workers of America, which represents more coal miners than any other North American union.

“A lot of these coal miners have massive skill sets,” Bates said. “They learn so much in the coal mine, that any other job they move into in that realm … they will be able to learn.”

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