hierarchy of economic geology

The Hierarchical Caste System amongst Economic Geologists

By: Erik Ronald, PG

Mining Geology HQ
20 October 2016


Can Geologists Easy Move between Commodity Groups?

A month or two ago, I received a question from a member of the Mining Geology HQ Community asking:

Why is it that geologists have a difficult time moving from one commodity group to the next, especially between Oil & Gas and metals mining?”

I thought about this question for a bit realizing that it is common for geologists who have worked in one particular commodity or deposit style to be seen by some in the industry as incapable of doing anything else. Why is this the case? I have friends and colleagues who have been deemed “that coal guy” or “she’s a bauxite geo”, yet each individual is fully capable of excelling as a geologist regardless of the metal or mineral of interest at their mine site. Do geologists who work for more than five years in a particular commodity forget the rest of economic geology or do they lose the ability to learn something new?

We as geologists have created an internal pecking order based on commodity products. In some commodity groups and companies, a dangerous ego has evolved that has unfortunately resulted in like-minded silo thinking and inhibited many bright, eager geologists from gaining experience across a variety of commodities and minerals. I’m not suggesting it is impossible to move from one group to another but in some cases the geology community has certainly erected barriers to entry. This hierarchy has limited cross collaboration between commodity groups for the benefit of the industry as a whole.

Self-Created Caste System

Amongst Economic Geologists there is an unspoken hierarchical system akin to the Indian caste system. The Indian system divides Hindus into four main castes plus the out-of-caste people known as “untouchables”. While I’d like to think there is no equivalent to “untouchables”, perhaps alluvial gemstones, road base, or fracking sand may be considered by some “the bottom”. Is it that as geologists we only feel valued if the geological complexity is great or if our final products are highly valued such as gold or diamonds? From an economic point of view, fracking sand provides a greater profit margin than many gold operations so why do geologists turn their nose up at the thought of mining sand?

Though this is highly subjective, here’s what I’ve seen as the pecking order within the industry, do you agree?

economic geology caste

I’ve included oil & gas in this graphic but it clearly sits off to the side. Though both are considered “mining” by many people, the career paths of petroleum geologists and mining geologist start diverging as early as the second year in university. While one group sweats over core samples and alteration, the other group sweats over downhole logs and lithofacies. In my personal experience, it is difficult to cross the petroleum/mining boundary in any role past graduate or entry-level. However, at the fundamental level, petroleum and metals geology are more similar than different with both disciplines requiring an understanding of structural geology, fluid movement, alteration/diagenesis, and volumes of recoverable reserves. Unfortunately, it is rare to find a geologist with experience across this border which I believe is doing both industries a disservice. Much can be learned and shared between these two industries.

Failure to Launch

The caste system is most evident during the hiring process. Each line in a role advert acts as a filter. Companies want to screen out applicants who are under qualified or aren’t committed to a company’s safety culture and so forth. But like data filters, sometimes we screen too much so what remains is not necessarily what is best. In a role description, most companies will insert a statement that the role requires a certain number of years of experience in the commodity of interest. In rare occasions, this is warranted but most of the time, it merely acts as a filter to exclude people with a different perspective who are fully capable geologists.

For highly specialised roles, companies require employees with highly specialised skills. For example, leading a team in district exploration requires knowledge of that district, so it is logical to seek a certain level of experience with the commodity of interest or deposit style. But in most other cases from graduate to management roles, a diversity of ideas, backgrounds, and experiences will commonly yield better results than adding yet another individual who thinks within the same paradigm.

Additionally, I’ve always been frustrated when I see phrases like “we are seeking a geologist with five years copper experience”. Not only does this potentially slam the door shut on bright, hardworking geologists who haven’t worked in copper but this statement fails to recognize the same metal can be produced from multiple deposit types. Does this company want an expert in skarn, porphyry, sedex, VMS or something else? Does it also assume that a geologist with experience in other base or precious metals can’t translate their experience and knowledge to copper?

What about other Professions?

An interesting point to note is that we don’t see this same hierarchy within Mining Engineering and other professions. Obviously, mining engineers bring a different skill set to the table and are not required to work out deposit paragenesis or exploration potential, but it is not uncommon for an engineer to go from a large open cut copper mine, to a coal stripping operation, then to an aggregate quarry. Compare that to a geologist with 10 years in coal trying to obtain a role in diamonds or gold…good luck! You’d never see a job description for an Accountant or Surveyor stating “must have ten years of experience in Carlin-type gold”. Is it that geologists just aren’t that bright to learn something new or is it that mapping, logging, ore control, modelling, reconciliation, and reporting are fundamentally different from gold to coal, copper, or potash?

In Closing

Yes, it can be difficult to move between commodities due to our own created hierarchy as economic geologists. It is not impossible though and should be encouraged as there are more similarities between commodities than differences. As someone who has worked in offshore Oil & Gas, base metals, iron ore, coal exploration, construction materials, and a variety of industrial minerals I can say that each commodity has its own unique set of challenges and aspects that makes being a geologist challenging and fun. I feel fortunate enough to take knowledge from one commodity and apply it to other commodities even if it took some convincing during interviews. I believe that if geologists had more opportunities to seamlessly move between commodities including oil & gas, the industry would be much better off and perhaps improve innovation and technological advances common to one industry.

Thank you for the question and reading through this proposed answer. I’d love to hear from other economic geologist out there as to their thoughts, experiences, and arguments. A few questions to the Mining Geology HQ Community:

– How did you respond when your “relevant experience” came under question?
– Is the pyramid accurate or is the reality several pyramids of grouped commodities?
– It is easier to move down the hierarchy pyramid of commodities?

If you haven’t joined already, be sure to subscribe to the Mining Geology HQ Community. It’s completely free and will keep you up to date with new information, articles, and news. It’s also a great way to ask the community questions and network with other passionate geologists.


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Posted in Mine Geology, Mineral Exploration, Resource Geology.

13 Comments

  1. Dear Eric,

    I agree that there is unnecessary filtering of the geologists, and there are several pyramids, not just one. However, I have managed to get experience in different commodities, working through a consulting company. Most of my projects are gold projects, but I had a chance to work on lithium deposits and I try to get in different classes.

    Usually I adjust my resume according to the job and I highlight my relevant experience. The reality is that currently there are more geologists than jobs and that’s why people are so selective. When the times are better this is the time to try to get experience in another commodity.Until then we keep taking different classes, socializing with friends from different commodity groups, because people hire people.

  2. I’ve seen changes to my career almost more often than having stability. I’ve gone from military to exploration to production to government/regulatory, and within those broad sets, there are multiple changes involving targeted metals, deposit types, and governing regulation. I have less difficulty changing the topic once I’m inside, but many difficulties getting in the door and explaining to an HR person why my time running an Artillery Battery might make me a better candidate for coordinating paleontological studies (sounds like one of those SAT analogy questions). The bottom line is that you cannot make a company or person respect diversity (or lack thereof) in topic focus, so why worry about that? Companies that see positives in hiring somebody with a multitude of experiences tend to be progressive and often are succeeding, especially if they are evolving their business or finding ore where nobody else bothered to look. If a company is only interested in doing the same thing, they will hire somebody appropriate, and they will be successful at doing the same thing until it’s irrelevant or mined out.

    As for your questions… I’ve moved in both directions, but only within metals; the metal wasn’t as important as the style of mineral deposits I worked in (easy to go from igneous related Cu to igneous related Au). Going from exploration to production wasn’t too difficult, but production guys didn’t like my questioning their methods. I didn’t get much of a chance to go toward any of the industrial materials, but I don’t know if my resume was keeping from there or my lack of mining-engineering. I know my lack of knowledge on coal kept me out of a BLM job in coal-country, but that same lack of knowledge didn’t hurt my transfer from gold dominant permitting to where I am now (U-Cu-Coal-paleo). I have a feeling I’d have a tough time going back to mining if I tried in a few years, but perhaps not exploration.

  3. Broadly agree with the pyramid.
    You could even split within commodity groups. Carlin gold or epithermal gold higher than alluvial or porphyry Au?
    Maybe the measure could be the volume of literature and journal articles on an area?

  4. The mineral system models and the range of geological settings that need to be understood by professional geoscientists in their day to day work, are more complex for the commodities shown at the top of the pyramid. I think for many, university studies only contribute a minor part to what we know, on the job learning is the bulk, its where we have the opportunity to make the majority of our observations and fine tune our understanding. So I think although any aspect of geology or economic geology can be delved into in detail, the reality is that ‘on the job’ exposure to geological complexity, and having to grasp it, is more common for the people who work with the commodities at the top of the pyramid. Having said that, some cross pollination of skills never hurts.

  5. Well done, I must show my age as I started on polymetallic exploration and a specialist geochemist and it was drummed into me to follow all leads, irrespective of commodity types. I drilled the discovery holes into King Vol Zinc Copper Skarn but we convinced management that we were testing the gold potential!
    The more worrying trend at the moment is the separation on employment application for non-geological reasons. I know of several qualified geologists that were rejected in their applications because they had the wrong GIS experience.
    Does anyone else have similar stories?

  6. Interesting discussion.

    I would say that the boundaries on this pyramid of commodity types have considerable overlap, often based on ore deposit genesis. For example, a geologist working in porphyry Au can fairly easily move to Au-Cu porphyries and Mo-Cu porphyries, because it is all a part of the hydrothermal field. The same could be said for basin analysis, where sedex Cu and redox boundary U deposits are concerned. Perhaps it is in basin analysis where the oil and gas geologists can move into metals more easily than in other sectors. Also, carbonate facies geologists in the oil industry could move into CRD (Carbonate Replacement Deposits) as a stepping stone into the metals industry, by expanding their understanding of metal systems signatures.

    I would disagree in part with your “Other Professions” comments. The examples you gave for a mining engineer were all varieties of open pit operations. Mining engineers often have difficulties moving from open pit to underground operations, because they are perceived to be big-scoop guys, whereas the underground mine manager might be looking at an operation with very selective multiple stope and production face selective mining. It is not that the o/p engineer cannot learn the u/g field, but he/she is not ready to enter working at full speed. For smaller operations, they would also have to pick up ventilation engineering, as there is often not a person specifically assigned to that task.

    In other Professions, like Lawyers, there is very early specialization. You rarely see a tax lawyer going into a criminal case, or a family law specialist doing mergers and acquisitions. Some jurisdictions split the lawyers as barristers and solicitors, yet in other jurisdictions you are “Called to the Bar” as both a barrister and a solicitor. They too have a cast system as to which fields of law get the top rungs.

  7. Very interesting discussion!
    Living proof; I am a geologist who has taken the plunge into oil and gas after working in Cu-porphyry, and back again to exploration mining. I begun doing core analysis and moved straight into drilling and operations for a major oil and gas company, I was able to bring a plethora of knowledge and “tricks” back to drilling in the mining environment. With this, I was able to convince my employer (mining), that as a geologist with now an engineering and drilling background, I will be a valued asset to the project. The drilling groups I worked with gave me the skills necessary to apply in the mining environment.

  8. Great concept and discussion. It’s interesting that the ranking system does mirror the ‘typical’ geologic complexity and general rarity of the successive commodities. Gold systems are typically complex with higher degrees of geologic sleuthing required, whereas large, stratabound bulk commodities are often geologically simple, with the engineering challenges of mining and processing adding the complexity.

    Where I see the challenge for economic geologists is transitioning from 1) different tectonic/metallogenic settings and 2) primary/hypogene to oxide/supergene weathering environments. In the example of a ‘Carlin specialist’, a transition to an Archean lode-gold setting since the structural controls and complexities can be similar, is easier, than say to an island-arc, intrusive-related gold system. I worked with an old Carlin geologist in Alaska, where everything was compared to the Leeville Deposit in the Carlin trend, no matter the deposit style, since that’s where he spent the bulk of his career. I’ve spent the bulk of my career in the northern cordillera, and had an initial steep learning curve working in tropical environments where I would never see any of my familiar primary sulphides.

    In the case of lateral transition in Canada from Canadian Shield to Cordillera exploration; geophysics is heavily emphasized in the former and geochemistry in the latter, with preferential bias to these methods based on where they’ve gained the bulk of their experience (I’ve been guilty of this as well).

    As Murray Hitzman always says, ‘The best geologists are the ones who have seen the most rocks!’

  9. A very telling tale of the inequities of the industry; commendations to the author. Why any discerning geologist would expect open acceptance and inter-change between commodities has become a defining and discriminating criterion of our time. The exploration industry is customarily volatile, incestuous (i.e. top heavy with certifiably useless VPs, HR demagogues etc) and highly dysfunctional, hence geologists are among the first to be jettisoned once the price of one or all commodities goes belly up, when in reality it should be the VP’s who get the boot. So-called industry experts bemoan the shortfall of experienced geologists to make the next discovery or mentor lesser experienced geologists to follow in their shoes. If a dedicated explorationsit is through time and invaluable experience(s), type-cast into one commodity, or even worse – left out in the cold during recurring downturns – he or she is considered either inadequate or over-experienced or both. What on Earth does this industry expect?

  10. amazing stuff to discuss. Here in Brazil as we are very succeptible in crises period we do have this kind of caste essenstially between gold or iron vs hydrogeologists or engineer related. I have worked some years in gold project in Amazon rainforest and I was “respected” about it, nowadays I’m hydrogeologist with much proud but seen as second-class geologist by this ones. Even my passion is mining I do love and get differents experiences in water supplies, RC logging and bumping tests. Unfortunately poor and dynamic country like Brazil, geologist has a range area to engage. I think is all about opportunities but we are all geoscientist and respect is everything.

  11. An interesting discussion Erik and one I agree with from personal experience. I would also suggest that if one were to consider number of geologist, or in fact technical people, per mine then you almost see an inverted pyramid. The result of this is that geologists working towards the ‘bottom’ often get valuable experience in non-geology work, such as mine planning or operations management. These experiences, whilst valuable, are often overlooked when trying to transition to ‘higher’ commodities. Equally, highly technical geologists from say precious metals may find it challenging to work in a much more diverse role of an industrial minerals mine.

    • Owen – all great points! I am thankful for my time with industrial minerals for just this reason. I was able to become more than a geologist but a well-rounded mining professional when required to wear many hats including: geotech, pit supervisor, lab technician, life-of-mine planner, landman, surveyor, and there was even a short stint of running a plant. All of which made me a better geologist. Now there are few in the gold and precious metals fields who can say they did all that in a five year time period!

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