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?
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?
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?
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