By Rich Nolan, Reno Gazette Journal, September 18, 2023
By 2030, Gen Z will be 30 percent of the American workforce. This tech-savvy generation has strong ideas about the places and cultures in which it wants to work. And one of the recurring opinions heard from Gen Z-ers is the longing to get out from behind the desk, to find a place where collaboration is key and where the work is impactful. Gen Z, here’s an idea for you: American mining.
Mining needs you. Mining needs your skillset and energy, and it may be exactly what you’re looking for, even if you don’t yet realize it.
The opportunity is extraordinary. By 2029, with a tsunami of retirements on the horizon, fully half of the nation’s mining workforce — some 221,000 workers — needs to be replaced. This great changeover is coming just as demand for mined materials is poised to soar.
From smart phones to semiconductors, data centers to solar panels and electric vehicles, the foundational technologies of tomorrow are remarkably mineral-intensive. Reinvesting in and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure — as well global urbanization and the ongoing fight to reduce global poverty — are all driving incredible new mineral demand.
The global supply of lithium, for example, so critical to lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles, needs to expand 40-fold by 2040, or it risks short-circuiting the EV revolution. Annual copper production, so important to the copper wiring in nearly everything, needs to reach a level by 2050 equal to all the copper produced in the past 120 years. That’s just annual demand.
These projections are extraordinary and they will require extraordinary people to meet the challenge. Not only does the world need more mining, it needs responsible mining under world-leading environmental, labor and safety standards. That means more American mining and it also means we need more young Americans to recognize the incredibly diverse and exceptional opportunities in today’s mining workforce.
Perceptions of mining are dated, often cartoonish, and that must change. Mining is an entire universe of jobs and expertise, where technology is already having a profound impact. From mining engineers and geologists to truck drivers, safety experts, drone operators and environmental officers, the work is diverse, collaborative, cutting-edge and deeply important. It’s an industry with purpose.
Mining jobs are also great paying jobs. The average wage in the mining workforce is more than $85,000 per year — well above the national average for other industries. Mining jobs are careers where the learning is constant and the opportunity to develop and refine skills is enormous. The industry needs the innovative thinking, tech-savvy and problem-solving Gen Z has to offer.
The mining workforce challenge also needs policy support. The number of mining engineering programs is shrinking with the number of mining engineering graduates falling 39 percent since 2016. We need investment in these programs, we need investment in trade schools and in STEM, and we need investment in educating young people about the irreplaceable role mining plays in their lives.
Mining, and the remarkable technologies and standard of living it enables, has never been so important. Americans, especially young Americans, need to recognize it and, hopefully, begin to recognize the extraordinary opportunities available in the mining workforce.
Rich Nolan is president and CEO of the National Mining Association.