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Aging baby boomers, few replacements threaten U.S. mining sector—NRC Report

The retirement of the baby boomers who comprise the bulk of the mining-related workforce could mean problems for mining, academia, and even the American life style, says a new report.

A new report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Engineering is concerning that the loss of a large number of experienced energy and mining workers in industry, academia, and government may actually impact the high standard of living and importance of the United States in the global economy.

For example, the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) expects that 46% of the coal-sector workforce will be eligible to retire in five years.

“Not only are there too few younger workers in the pipeline to replace them, but there is little time to capture the knowledge of experienced employees before they leave,” said the NRC’s Committee on Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Energy and Mining Industries.

The report also suggests that federal employees hav a critical role in, and impact on, the success of the U.S. energy and mining industries. However, the federal agencies that employ mining and energy professionals have found the majority of their employees are currently eligible or will be eligible for retirement in four years.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 128,000 were employed in nonfuel mining in 2010, while coal mining employed 89,200 persons.

EDUCATION ISSUES

“Another major crosscutting factor is that a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills is needed for many energy and mining jobs,” the committee noted. “However, the current pipeline of STEM-capable students and workers is inadequate to meet work force needs. Stem education begins in K-12, but the poor preparation of high school students is well known. High dropout rates and a lack of alternative pathways to high school graduation are also problems.”

An average of 125 B.S. degrees in mining engineering has been awarded in the U.S. for the past 25 years. The number of accredited U.S. mining and mineral engineering programs has declined to 14. The number of faculty has declined from 120 to 70 in 2007. This translates to an average if five faculty at each of the 14 programs, each awarding nine B.S. degrees annually.

The good news, however, is that community colleges “are proving to be the best vehicle for delivering the technician-level, skills-based education that the energy and mining industries need in a STEM technical workforce,” said the report.

The committee also identified 19 successful programs from a variety of educational institutions that have “established excellent pathways to address the workforce issues. …Opportunities also exist to attract young people, including ethnic minorities and women, into STEM programs and technical programs that lead to energy and mining careers.”

“All involved federal agencies should review and revise recruitment, training and employment arrangements for federal employees directly involved in minerals and energy policy, permitting, and production oversight to ensure the agencies’ ability to attract and retain qualified federal workers,” said the report. “Industries involved in energy production and resource extraction should develop collaborative efforts to partner with government at all levels to develop solutions to the problem of recruiting and retaining quality public-sector employees.”

The NRC Emerging Workforce Trends report also recommends that national mining industry organizations should partner with educational institutions to embark on an informational campaign to educate students, parents, educators, and public policy makers about the importance of mining to U.S. economic and national security, careers in the mining industry, and job availability.

To read the report, “Emerging Workforce Trends in the Energy and Mining Industries: A Call to Action,” go to http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18250

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