By: Erik Ronald, PG
Mining Geology HQ
23 September 2016
Reviewing Historical Trends of Geological Training in the Mining Sector
This article examines the historic trends of geological training and development for students and industry professionals in the mining sector. We’ll review the history of geological training and see what is common in business today regardless of whether you’re in mine geology, exploration, or resource geology. A series of recommendations are suggested to improve the state of geological training in the industry in order to maximize the value of professional geologists.
The underlying message in this article is the importance of a strong scientific foundation based on field observations, continuous challenges, and varied experiences for career success. Unfortunately, history indicates that many universities and companies have let down geologists resulting in fewer high-performing and well-qualified geologists entering the industry in the past 25 years, followed by under-development once within industry. This in turn has resulted fewer geologists in executive roles at major mining companies and a downward trend in significant exploration discoveries.
Throughout this article, the term “training” is used which should not be confused with external courses or classroom work. In this context, the training is a combination of university degrees, hands-on experience, on-the-job training, all supplemented with professional coursework.
A “Short” History Lesson
Geological field observations are the heart and soul of geology as a science. Mathematicians have their formulas, chemists have their laboratories, and geologists basically have the outdoors. Well, the parts that are not covered by concrete at least.
It all can be traced back to Georgius Agricola‘s De Re Metallica, published in 1556. This is commonly considered the first scientific work in the field of mining geology. He presented the fundamental principles and considerations for mining and discussed the benefits of understanding economic geology, as it would later be termed.
The science of geology began to consolidate as a discipline in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as the pioneers of the science applied their meticulous sense of observation and scientific thought to “problems” observed in the countryside. In 1785, there was James Hutton, the Scottish physician whose observations led to the Theory of Uniformitarianism. Hutton’s work greatly influenced William Smith as he created the world’s first geological map in 1815. Fifteen years later saw the publication of Principles of Geology by the British lawyer, Sir Charles Lyell. By then, the science we know as Geology was in full stride based on detailed field observations and interpretations of the Earth’s processes over time.
Figure 1: Wide and narrow veins as illustrated in De Re Metallica circa 1556.
Beginning in the late 18th century, new universities were being established around the globe focused on providing engineers and geologists to support the mining and petroleum industries. These specialist schools were born out of the need to understand the Earth and train young men (as was the case at the time) to work in the mines. Some of the first mining universities included: St. Petersburg School of Mines in 1773, the Royal School of Mines (Imperial College London) in 1851, the Colorado School of Mines in 1874, and the University of Witwatersrand in 1896. (Random fact: The world’s first “school of mines” was established in 1716 in Joachimstal, Czech Republic.)
Little changed until the early 20th century as geologists roamed the countryside or ventured underground making observations, maps, cross-sections, and interpretations about the Earth. They inferred the processes, hypothesized on formation, speculated on ages, and were largely focused on the economic benefits the Earth could provide. Training was more applied than scientific at times but was continuously evolving and advancing.
Golden Age (1950s through 1980s)
Figure 2: U.S. Geological Survey field mapping camp circa 1950.
During the post-war years, especially in the anglosphere (U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa specifically), economies were strengthening, commodity prices were up due to industrial demand, mining was profitable, and jobs were available for returning servicemen. Men returning from war flooded universities and geology departments were training students in classical field methods.
There was still a strong geographic emphasis based on regional job demands such as coal in the Eastern parts of both the U.S. and Australia, underground mining in South Africa, the Rocky Mountains, and Eastern Canada, copper in Arizona and Chile, and so forth. Students obtained a strong foundation in the science, learned how to think, record data, and make sound observations. Universities were relied upon to supply the new engineers and scientists directly to the mines that resulted in curricula including courses in mining, surveying, assaying and so forth. Additionally, many students could work part-time during the school year as junior geologists, surveyors, assayers, or miners. This work experience along with a highly applied course curriculum resulted in students immediately ready to jump into industry.
Once hired by a company, the expectation was that the geologist would stay with that company for most, if not their entire career and the company would develop the geologist to be a productive member of their exploration or mining team. For example, when geologists started with Anaconda Copper Mining Company during the 1950-1970s, they were immediately shipped off to Butte, Montana to learn the “Butte mapping method”. After a year or two of learning and leading mine production crews along veins, the competent geologists would be sent around the world to put their practical knowledge to use elsewhere in either another mine or to explore in Australia, Africa, or South America.
Training was applied and practical but by now the science had advanced to gain a new understanding of ore body genesis, new research was more easily shared through publications, and classical field observations supported by science were still the foundation of learning. The investment in an individual’s development was of great benefit to both the company and the geologist with long-terms views by both parties.
Earth Systems Age (1990 through 2000s)
Beginning sometime around 1990, a paradigm shift occurred in university geology departments around the world. Whether this was a trailing response to the early 1980s crash in metals, the environmental movement in the Western world, or many “First World” mines closing due to exhausted ore, but traditional geology departments were falling out of favor and struggling with enrollment and support. The classical “hard rock” geology courses and professors were slowly being replaced with “Earth systems” classes covering loosely any Earth-related science from climatology to meteorology to soil contamination. Universities were under pressure to “modernize”, with many of the “old school” professors whose work was primarily field based replaced with environmental generalists, laboratory geochemists, GIS specialists, and other disciplines more traditionally found in Geography, Cartography, or Environmental Science departments.
Field courses, the capstone of university geology, declined due to costs, liabilities, and the perceived need to generate generalist Earth scientists. Additionally many students experienced a squeezing of core geology subjects resulting in many petrology/mineralogy classes condensed into a single semester. These graduates, who have taken one or two courses in multiple subjects such as environmental science, geology, hydrology and a myriad of other physical sciences, become qualified for one thing – attend graduate school to further specialize. Unfortunately, they tend to be ill prepared to enter any specific industry or field without years in technician-level roles to learn the trade.
I am not suggesting that the various Earth sciences mentioned in this article have no merit, far from it! These are each important disciplines in modern life and society but my arguments are simply do not label a degree “geology” if the courses to obtain that degree are not actually geology but instead generic Earth sciences.
If a degree program is in “geology” then the university should aim to produce graduates who are scientifically sound general geologists with a fundamental understanding of mineralogy, structure, petrology, field mapping, geomorphology, stratigraphy, further refined with upper-level courses in disciplines such as petroleum geology or economic geology. In short, if a student wants to learn geography, GIS, environmental science or other discipline that’s great! Just please don’t try to pass it off as geology.
During this time period, many of the larger, well-funded mining corporations stepped up their graduate programs and became increasingly selective as to which universities they recruited incoming graduates. It wasn’t all negative though, as much of the applied “real world” training shifted from universities to companies meaning the geologists lucky enough to land a role in a graduate program during this time greatly benefited from the development. Unfortunately, many did not have this luxury. Additionally, students were further hampered by several bust periods where companies simply did not hire. This in turn resulted in many geology graduates seeking careers outside mining or geology entirely such as evidenced by my old postal delivery guy had a degree in geology from a lower tier school.
Data Processing Age (mid-2000 to today)
The biggest and most defining change during the current period is the accessibility and use of personal computers to process massive data sets. The trend began in the late 1990s but by today we see almost everyone with laptops, tablets, smart phones, and interconnected devices on nearly every mine and project site across the globe. We now possess the ability to rapidly model the Earth in four dimensions (3D plus time) and the capacity to process a previously unheard of amount of data. Therefore, it would be a logical conclusion that our observations, understanding, and models of the Earth are more robust, better informed, and overall closer to “the truth” than ever before. Unfortunately, in many cases we have become data rich and knowledge poor.
The reliance on data processing and technology, instead of a fundamental understanding, is a serious problem the industry is facing. There has been a trend in the mining industry, likely accelerated by the recent boom, toward the geologist’s role being reduced to a well-paid technician tasked with collecting basic data, then inputting it into a semi-automated system for use in mine planning. The norms are shifting away from scientific thinking, innovation, and creativity to efficiency and increasing the speed in which outputs are produced, at times while compromising quality (i.e. intrinsic models, automated sections, and blackbox software).
Whether it’s the chicken or the egg isn’t clear but one has to think if your geological workforce isn’t capable of creative, innovative, and generative work you certainly won’t see them leading companies. Alternatively, if there are no geologists in upper management, how does one expect proper development and succession planning to train geologists to be tomorrow’s leaders?
Over the past 15 years or so, I have had the unfortunate personal experience of working with multiple graduate geologists that made me suspect their attendance at university. Not only were some grads hopeless in the field, many of them wanted nothing to do with stepping away from the comfort of their cubicle and computer screen. Somewhere in their education, they believed that staring at endless spreadsheets or 3D wireframes would be sufficient to work out complex geological problems and effectively communicate their recommendations to management. The good news is I’ve also had the privilege of working with some highly competent graduates, most of which were advanced degree students working under great advisors at select universities.
Figure 3: Which environment would cultivate creative thought, fundamental understanding of the Earth, and likely lead to new discoveries?
So this brings us to today and a chance to look at where the industry may be headed. Undergraduate programs have been under-delivering classically trained geologists for 20+ years, company graduate programs seem to be a distant memory due to cost cutting, and ore bodies aren’t getting easier to find. Yet the industry continues to ask, “where is the next major discovery?”
If we don’t train our geologists in the fundamentals of the science, teach them to be creative thinking scientists, spend time to mentor and development them, but instead task them with mind-numbing technician or data entry work, is it any wonder we see a decreasing amount of geoscientists in upper management and global mineral discoveries on a downward trend? A paper presented six years ago at the Prospectors and Developers Annual Conference (PDAC) looked at the trends of major mineral discoveries from 1950 to 2009. Though this data isn’t quite up to date, the trends are obvious (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Exploration discoveries 1950 – 2010 by Schodde, Richard, PDAC 2010, MinEx Consulting
The reasons for the sharp decrease could be the subject of an entire conference in itself, but the recent insufficient training and development of geologists are likely a contributing factor. The industry as a whole must demand more of geologists but in the same breath, be willing to support the training, mentoring, and development of individuals if the expectation is to find the next world class ore body. If current expectations were to simply check boxes with logging data, create graphs of assay values, and ensure drillers don’t kill themselves then I’d say we’ve already achieved that today. But if that was truly the case, why hire university-trained professionals when most of that work can be automated or out-sourced to unskilled workers? If the industry wants scientists to make discoveries then we need to start doing something to change.
The Sky isn’t Falling Quite Yet…
Of course not all is lost! The fact you are reading this article and have persevered this long with it means there are geologists out there who recognize this troubling trend and want to address it. The good news is that there are still a few post-graduate university programs that are creating highly-qualified, classically trained geologists, with many dynamic junior explorers making discoveries around the globe.
To start, I’ve presented a checklist of recommendations to consider if you want to obtain well-qualified, highly engaged and capable geologists who will make discoveries, improve your business, and lead the industry forward. It doesn’t happen by itself, it’s not free, and it takes a long-term view and commitment by companies and professional societies.
Recommendations for Companies:
- Commit to long-term graduate training. Graduate geology programs must expose the geologist to mine geology, resource geology, exploration, and production leadership roles over the first few years. Additionally, they should gain an introduction to mine planning, surveying, metallurgy/processing, logistics, finance, and management. Similar to mining engineering graduate programs, the individual needs to experience a wide range but be held accountable to produce with high expectations. Graduates are not for getting coffee or doing the meaningless tasks, challenge them hard and both the company and individuals will greatly benefit.
- Screen your people well and only hire the best. Set high expectations and don’t settle for under-performers. Each graduate should be viewed as potential upper management or the next company Chief Geologist. When you view the new hire as potentially your next boss, it starts to hit home. If an individual does not thrive in a graduate program or rise to the challenge of a role, you’re only doing the company and the shareholders a disservice by continuing to employ them.
- Provide a mentor. A mentor can’t be someone who drew a short straw but needs to be a person who’s keen to develop someone and willing to spend the time and energy required. This may be a senior geologist, a manager, or even someone from outside the company but the importance of the student-teacher relationship is key and will separate out those determined to succeed in the industry. A mentor should be someone who has seen career success, not just been promoted due to attrition. Additionally, companies must re-instate the old “bag-carrier” roles that allow younger, high-potential geologists to gain insight into the upper workings of management and the challenges the business faces.
- The Geologists who sees the most rocks wins! This has never been truer. For a geologist to succeed they must be exposed to various terrains, field conditions, commodities, exploration techniques, mapping, and as many field trips as possible. It’s rare these days to hear of a company sponsored field trip to allow geologists to gain a broader understanding of an area, mine site, or a district. Additionally, presenting at conferences and attending talks are key to facilitate learning, share new ideas, and collaborate with other professionals which is what science is all about. Denying geologists the ability to attend industry conferences greatly inhibits their ability to learn from others outside their immediate network or team.
Recommendations for Geologists:
- Graduate Degree. If you’re serious about a career as a geologist, then obtain a graduate degree (that means Masters or PhD). Seek out a university with a strong applied focus and healthy ties to industry. Use the connections, internships, research projects, and alumni to leverage a broader exposure to the industry. Take as many field trips as humanly possible. If you’re already a working professional, consider a part-time program or graduate certificate but keep learning!
- Define a development plan, at least a 5 year plan with options to vary depending on changing interests. This may be a graduate development plan or a late-career plan, the important thing is to just have a plan. The simple analogy is true that you won’t get to where you want without a map. A mentor comes in handy here when you’re stuck.
- Challenge your Comfort Zone. Comfort is the antithesis of innovation and original thought. This point is more geared toward mid-career professionals but may apply to many. As soon as your job becomes second nature, find a new job. Learn as much as you can from other disciplines, about the mining business in general, get exposure to various commodities, and never stop learning. Personal and professional growth does not happen while in your comfort zone. Learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
- Find time to stop, think, and question. Many times we get caught up being busy and mistake it for being productive. We must stop to think about what value we’re providing or why we’re collecting the data, how is it being used, and is there a better way. Schedule time to think big-picture, ask yourself if the work you’re doing is directly contributing to the company’s goal (first, make sure you know what are the company goals!). Is your daily work akin to the creativity and innovation of Google or more similar to a Ford assembly line?
- Peer group – To steal a quote from Jim Rohn “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with”. Consider that your peer group heavily influences your work habits, drive, ambitions, and especially your expectations. If you look around and find that you’re the smartest or hardest working person in a room, it’s time to change rooms.
To recap, ensure you have a sound understanding of the fundamentals and feed your curiosity daily with new challenges and creative thought. Take time to make a development plan, seek out advice from respected peers, and ensure you’re being challenged. If you lack the fundamentals, find a way to get back to basics and get a mentor to guide you on your journey.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article as I hope it helps open some eyes to the broader industry trends and we start reinvesting in people and science going forward. I encourage you to comment, provide feedback, and share with your friends. To keep up to date on our articles, references, and material please join our Community by subscribing here. Don’t worry, it’s all free!