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Mining Engineering

Digging Your Future: Is a career in mining engineering right for you?

By Eric Luchman

The deep coalmines of West Virginia might seem a world away from the bustling offices of a big city engineering firm, but they are more connected than they might first appear. Before miners can delve into the earth's surface to extract raw materials, it takes top mining engineers to coordinate all of the challenges this process presents.

If your idea of a nine-to-five job involves moving mountains (literally) and getting a bit dusty, then a career in mining engineering might be the field for you. Engineers in the field of mining engineering provide manufacturers around the world with raw materials for the products they make. They are also responsible for the safety of mining crews and are accountable for the protection of the earth's resources. However, the field is surprisingly quite small. So small, in fact, that most professors of mining programs know each other by name. This tight knit community has an upside-they're eager to invite promising, young engineers to join their ranks.

The field of mining took a hit in the 1980s due to low prices for minerals and a lingering recession. But now mining engineering is seeing a comeback unlike anything the industry has seen in 15 years.

If you're unsure what path your engineering career should take, read on to learn more about this exciting field that's looking for exceptional

Moving On Up

In the United States, there are only a handful of mining engineering programs. There are 13 total, which is down from 20 programs in the 1980s. Many schools like Michigan Tech, University of Idaho and Texas A & M have either closed their programs or have integrated them into other engineering programs.

As the price of commodities continues to rise, the mining field is seeing many of its workforce prepare to retire-about 200-400 per year, according to a Society of Mining Engineering report released this February. This rapid retirement rate is causing an acute shortage of mining engineers.

"Companies waited too long, waiting 20 years between hiring a new workforce," says Dr. Larry Grayson, chair and professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla. This is creating a big problem for mining companies looking to replace these workers. However, for recent graduates, this increased need for mining engineers provides a wealth of opportunities and a unique chance to move quickly up the ladder.

When you think of mining, you might conjure up images of men covered in coal dust, holding pick axes while being lowered into a mine shaft. Though mining might not be portrayed as glamorous or given as much attention as other engineering fields, the field requires engineers to be knowledgeable about the surface and underground of the earth, as well as the strength of the materials that are being extracted. "Many engineers have a misconception about mining, thinking that it's old fashioned," says Dr. Charles Kliche, associate professor of mining engineering at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. In reality, however, "mining is high-tech, using computer aided design in equipment, explosives and mine design."

When new mining graduates come out of their programs, many head directly into management trainee programs and work on a variety of projects, including surveying a potential mine to overseeing a crew. "Mining engineers have a career path going from mine manager and up to vice president. Most presidents of mineral companies are degreed mining engineers," says Kliche.

Where to Land a Job

If you decide to pursue a career in mining engineering, where's the best part of the country to pursue a career? Check out areas with major concentrations of minerals, including the Southwest for its copper, Northern Minnesota and Northern Michigan for its iron and West Virginia for its coal.

If you're not interested in moving to a rural area, future mining engineers should look to urban areas where crushed rock is used in the construction of new homes. "Quarries (used for crushed rock) present more of a challenge for engineers. They will face zoning and expanding issues, as well as issues of dust and vibrations," says Dr. Gregory Adel, assistant department head of mining and materials engineering at Virginia Tech, the largest mining engineering school in the country. Adel also sees growth in the area of aggregates (granite, sandstone, limestone) industry, especially in the last ten years.

Other areas that mining engineers may work in include health and safety, explosives engineering, mine design and tunnel construction.

More Bang for Your Buck

Graduates entering the mining engineering field will earn substantial starting salaries. "In the last three years, graduates have been seeing salaries at $46,000 and up, and those who are in coal see $50,000 and up," says Grayson.

Besides an excellent starting salary, what else is so appealing about the mining field for new graduates? While there are some desk jobs in mining engineering, the big benefit for many is the chance to work on the job site.

"When talking to freshman, I ask them if they want to be outside working with people and big equipment, or behind a desk," says Adel. "If their answer is outside, then mining
engineering is for them."

Adel also agrees that recent graduates in mining engineering will have the opportunity to move up the ladder quickly by training for management positions, news which will certainly appeal to engineers with upper management goals.

So what type of projects might future mining engineers expect to be doing once they enter the work world? A good example actually comes from the academic sector: The University of West Virginia is conducting a research project along with the Riverton Coal Production Inc. that's improving upon roof-boalting a hard rock mine using a real-time, computerized method to determine the stability and geology of the roof. In laymen's terms, roof-boalting is supporting the roof of an underground mine. This project will help determine drill position, rotation speed and torque, and bolt size and strength. The stronger the roof is, the safer the workers are, and the higher the ultimate production value is of the mine. For more information on this project, visit www.wvu.edu.

Graduates might also work for a mining consulting company. Mining consultants don't actually do the mining projects themselves, but they provide complete and thorough analysis of projects, detailing the equipment and labor need, costs of the project and construction schedule. McIntosh Engineering of Tempe, Ariz., is one such company that consults on dozens of projects, mainly in the Western United States and Canada. Checkout their Web site www.mcintoshengineering.com for more information.

Diamond in the Rough

Mining engineering is probably one of the least recognized fields of engineering, but workers in the specialty have a great responsibility to the health of the planet and the successful function of the manufacturing industry.

With the mining industry's current upswing and the current dearth of engineers to fill the new positions, now is an ideal time to take a closer look closer look at a career in this burgeoning field.

Eric Luchman is a free-lance writer based in North Carolina.

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