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America's Security May Depend On Critical Minerals. But Mine Workers Are Scarce

Large dump truck in a Utah copper mine.
Getty Images
Large dump truck in a Utah copper mine.

America's mines are open for business. Not for coal necessarily, but definitely for the critical minerals seen by the Biden administration as essential for economic and national security, like lithium to power batteries or aluminum for wind turbines.

But there's a hitch. Companies are struggling to hire miners.

Mining and geological engineering employment is estimated to grow 4% from 2019-2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As demand keeps rising for these minerals, there are fewer skilled employees to fill job openings in the industry.

"We need more workers," says mining consultant Catherine Joyner. "It is not going to be sustainable for our industry if it stays at the level that it is."

Like many employees in the U.S., mine workers have used the pandemic to reassess their careers. Many have pivoted to new professions or retired completely, says mining economist David Hammond.

Mining for critical minerals and metals is not easy work. In both underground and surface mines, workers operate heavy machinery as big as houses and deal with explosives. On the professional side, engineers, metallurgists and mine managers design and coordinate mine operations.

Jobs in the industry are well-compensated. The average salary of an underground mining machine operator and extraction worker is $56,000, and mining and geological engineers make upwards of $90,000, according to May 2020 figures from BLS. Workers attracted to the profession tend to stick around for decades, Joyner says.

But the pay doesn't always outweigh the emotional and physical toll of the job.

Rocky McGinnis, 30, worked at a gold and silver mine in Mojave, California for about eight months. He'd worked various construction jobs for eight years and thought he would enjoy working with metals. But after only a few weeks on the job, he was fed up. He was tired of putting CBD oil on his hands and back just to get a decent night's rest. He said he and his coworkers would spend their shifts talking about the types of jobs they'd take if they weren't in mining.

"It took a big toll," McGinnis said, who now works as a realtor. "If it was just the job, I could've done it. But all the added turmoil really motivated me to study to pass my real estate test to get out of there."

Beyond young miners like McGinnis who are quitting, baby boomers are retiring.

Around 20% of workers in the mining, oil and gas sector are over 55, according to the BLS. In 2015, 43% of surveyed professionals in oil, gas and mining firms said the loss of talent due to an aging workforce would become a problem in the next six to 10 years, according to a Society for Human Resource Management study. Now it's six years later and Hammond says this percentage is much higher.

Recruiters are now scrambling to find qualified replacements to fill positions in critical mineral mining, says Russell Sullivan, a managing partner at Accelerated Data Decision, a recruiting firm that works closely with mining employers. Geological engineering programs are also having a hard time recruiting students, says Hammond.

Critical minerals have become increasingly important in recent years because they are key components in high-tech personal devices, green technologies like solar panels and defense systems like jet fighter engines. The U.S. imports the majority of its critical minerals, and both the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to boost domestic mining of these minerals.

To fill the needed positions, employers are raising pay. Still, young people aren't entering the industry at a sustainable rate.

Sullivan says marketing is largely to blame. The public still holds a negative perception of mining — people still think of dirty coal miners working in dangerous conditions.

He says the stigma needs to be corrected because critical minerals are essential in the transition to renewables and environmentally sustainable technology.

It's going to take more than a marketing push to retain younger mine workers, Hammond says. It's going to take education about the role of mining.

Gaze at any item in your living room, kitchen or garage. Odds are half of its parts were pulled from the ground — the lithium from minuscule phone batteries, the aluminum buried inside of coffee makers, the gold in TV circuit boards, says Joyner. They didn't appear in midair.

"We've had at least two generations who have been raised through the Harry Potter notion of commodities," says Hammond, the mining economist. "You wave your wand and they just appear. Where are you going to get the materials to build all of those windmills?"

Savannah Sicurella is an intern on NPR's business desk.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Savannah Sicurella