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Direct engagement can win over Gen Z, students tell miners

Negative views of mining have contributed to a decline in graduates, prompting a need for action.

Nadav Shemer
Mining companies are being urged to get into the classroom (Picture Source: Jason Tong / Creative Commons)

Mining companies are being urged to get into the classroom (Picture Source: Jason Tong / Creative Commons)

Members of Generation Z have overwhelmingly negative views of mining, according to polls and anecdotal evidence. But Gen Zers with aspirations to work in the industry say miners can win hearts and minds by stepping into the classroom and speaking directly with students.

Mining companies have been battling unprecedented labour shortages amid a decade-long decline in graduates, as Mining Journal reported recently.

Negative perceptions of mining among members of Gen Z, who were born between 1997-2012, have contributed to this decline. Polls back this up, with a 2022 Deloitte survey finding that 46% of Gen Zers and 34% of Millennials with jobs in mining or energy planned to leave those jobs within two years. Meanwhile, a 2020 survey found that 70% of Canadians aged 15-30 would not consider careers in mining - ranking mining below even the oil & gas and construction sectors in terms of its appeal.

Cooper Stamp, 22, a fourth-year student in the mining engineering program at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in the US, told Mining Journal that most members of Gen Z simply don't spend time thinking about mining.

"I've told people that I'm a mining engineering major, and their first response is, 'they still do that here?'"

"It's not something they see in their daily life, so it's just not on their radar. I've told people that I'm a mining engineering major, and their first response is, ‘they still do that here?'" he said.

Jed McGaffin, 26, a third-year mining engineering student at Federation University Australia in Ballarat, Victoria, said members of Gen Z that do think about mining usually hold negative views.

"My friends that are not in the industry seem to think mining is dirty and has no future, which obviously I disagree with, but they don't seem to listen to me when I try to explain it," he said.

Jasmin Groß, 21, a student at RWTH Aachen University in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, said many of her peers had heard about coal mining but "they don't know about all the other stuff that gets dug out of the ground that we need in our everyday lives."

When asked what the industry could do to improve mining's reputation, all three gave the same response: get into classrooms.

Groß said young people would probably show more interest in mining if they were exposed to it, and she urged mining companies to make more of an effort to engage directly with Gen Z.

Groß herself discovered the industry by chance, her interest in sustainability leading her to enrol in a bachelor of science in sustainable resources and energy supply, where she was given a choice between majors in mining, recycling or energy.

"I started studying because of the name, because it said sustainable. That's when I [first] learned about the mining industry, because I hadn't really thought about it before. And when I read about all the possibilities it would open up for me, how important the industry is and how big it is - I thought that was really exciting. There's so much different stuff to learn - like you have to learn about minerals, about processing. I was kind of amazed."

Although Groß was attracted to mining, her fellow students were not. She is one of only three students in the final year of her three-year degree who are focusing on mining, while more than 20 are majoring in energy and around five in recycling.

Groß said her peers had better awareness of mining than the general population, but many held the misconception that all of humanity's current needs could be met by a circular economy.

"Some people [in the program] think everything can be met by recycling. [Others] find mining kind of interesting. They think it's exciting, but they don't want to do it. It feels old fashioned. A lot of people just start the program for the energy elective. They don't want to do mining and other stuff."

McGaffin arrived at his mining degree more deliberately, having been "basically born into mining." His father is a metallurgist and his mother an environmentalist, and he spent the first 10 years of his life in a number of different Indonesian mining towns - including at the Batu Hijau mine on the island of Sumbawa. His father's work later took the family to Boddington in Western Australia, then to Bendigo in Victoria's historic Goldfields region and eventually to Ballarat, where the younger McGaffin worked as a truck driver and nipper at a local underground gold mine before enrolling in university.

McGaffin said it was friends working in the industry who encouraged him to become a mining engineer. Like Groß, he said other members of Gen Z could be convinced to pursue careers in mining if only the industry would make a bigger effort to speak at schools and universities about their contribution to society.

"Due to Gen Z being glued to their phones and social media, a lot of misinformation can be spread very easily, especially about the mining industry. The industry has to find a way to show Gen Z what is actually occurring in the mining industry," he said.

Stamp, originally from Wausau, Wisconsin, was introduced to mining through his involvement with the Boy Scouts and attendance at the National Jamboree in West Virginia in 2017. The jamboree site was a former surface coal mine in West Virginia that had been reclaimed and terraformed into a world-class scouting facility.

"While I was there I earned the Mining in Society merit badge, and my instructor for the course was a section boss at a local underground mine. That experience and introductory education of the industry was what lead me to pursue a degree in mining," he said.

Stamp said the industry should provide opportunities for students to visit mine sites and "get an understanding of what mining is in the current day."

"Most of what people think of with mining is the industry's past sins," he said giving the example of toxic mine waste running into waterways from the former Zortman-Landusky Mine in Montana in the past two decades.

"It's easy to see why people think poorly about our industry, but those events are in the past and people, the youth especially, need to understand the need for mining, and how safe and clean it is today," Stamp said.

According to Stamp and McGaffin, mining companies don't only need to do better at communicating with the general Gen Z population; they also need to improve the way they train Gen Z students.

Both students have completed internships in their home countries: Stamp at the Galena and Lucky Friday silver mines in Idaho and the Falkirk coal mine in North Dakota, and McGaffin at the Fosterville gold mine in Victoria and OZ Minerals' (now BHP's) Prominent Hill copper mine in South Australia.

Stamp said his internships involved a lot of work with Excel and computer-aided design software, "which was really good for understanding the actual job of a mining engineer."

But he said he wished he had been given the opportunity to work underground. "When I started my degree, I was told by engineers that had graduated in the 70s and 80s to expect internships that would involve actual mining, to give engineers time to understand how their work in the office affects the miners underground. I did not receive this style of internship. I think there is something to be said about spending a summer shoveling belts."

McGaffin said his internship met his expectations, due to knowing people in the industry. "I especially like it when they throw you in the deep end and you're expected to work it our for yourself and develop your own way of overcoming a problem."

However, he said other students had told him that they felt like they barely did anything in their internships and that the work wasn't meaningful.

"What employers in the industry could do better is to have a more structured path in regard to vacation work and graduation work. I know a lot of mines do have this in place but the mines I attended did not," he said.

Groß hasn't done any internships yet, but has visited mines in Germany and will participate in a field trip to Western Australia next year.

She has her eyes set on a career in the industry, most likely in mineral processing. She said one of the biggest attractions to working in mining was that it would give her the ability to work abroad.

"I want to see a lot of different mines in all parts of the world. I haven't really decided where to go, because I jus want to go where it [the industry] takes me," she said.

McGaffin and Stamp are also planning to pursue careers in mining.

For his part, McGaffin said he had put a lot of work into his mining aspirations and would like to see that pay off.

"As the mining industry is at the forefront of technology and is constantly evolving, that means mining will be around forever in my opinion," he said.

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