Mining’s “Lost Generation”: Never Again
By Kathryn G. Arlen
“Now is the time,” my professor friend emphasized to me once more, “to invest in
training, to put money into education. With metal prices high, the industry should be investing some of that money into education and training the next generation of engineers.”
Prof. Rajive Ganguli, (Department Head, Mining & Geology, University of Alaska Fairbanks) continued explaining how “…the industry is suffering because it neglected training 20 or 30 years ago—we had the ‘lost generation,’ as we call them. This is the time for the industry to say, ‘We’ll never make that mistake again.’”
Here in Fairbanks, Alaska, UAF is again playing a critical role in providing avenues of advancement for existing industry needs, creating cooperative inroads for educating and research application. With one successful Chinese student exchange program already in place, this past June UAF added Mongolia to its international stable of educational partners when Chancellor Brian Rogers and Prof. Ganguli traveled to Mongolia to solidify the new arrangement in a visit with government dignitaries and school officials.
Why Mongolia? Why now?
Chancellor Rogers pounced on the question: “First, it creates opportunities for our mining students to interact with students from another country, [a situation] that would be very significant for mineral development in the coming years, for example, in creating potential employment…
“And another plus is that the Mongolian government within the last month or so [July] has approved an agreement to open a very significant coal mine as well (Tavan Tolgoi project in the Gobi Desert), and it will be developed by a consortium of three companies from the U.S., China, and a Russian group…this is one of the world’s largest unexplored coal reserves,” Rogers summarized.
This added benefit is of particular interest to Prof. Ganguli who focuses much of his own research on coal issues. He stressed the critical importance of coal preparation in our current social climate: “Coal preparation is more important than ever, because we are no longer going to be cleaning coal for burning in power plants, not with the focus on ‘green’ energy. People are talking about coal to liquids, coal for gasification purposes. This will open up new areas…”
The new student exchange program itself offers students a “two plus three” agenda: two years study in Mongolia, Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST), followed by three years at UAF’s Department of Mining and Engineering. While automatically bringing in increased tuition revenue, the new program creates additional bonuses by expanding the curriculum and broadening course work, beneficial to all students, which is “a plus for both these students and the industry,” Chancellor Rogers stressed as he continued explaining the role of education in mining industry’s needs. “Mining schools in the United States serve both our states and the mining industry as a whole, and we know that alumnae of our program may work here in Alaska or elsewhere, or both, in fact, one of our top alums (Tom Albanese) is now CEO of Rio Tinto. So having some international exposure is a plus for both these students and for the industry.”
Extrapolating upon this explanation, Ganguli further diagnosed the “lost generation” reference: “The [mining] industry is not set up to engage itself in educating…but the industry has to get more involved. We are creating a product for them. It costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars to train each engineer, so, to me, the industry has to start thinking, “’When I buy a truck, I have no problem paying a million dollars—how come I have a problem paying for an engineer?’
“If the mining industry does not step up now to strengthen the academic side of their industry, they will not get trained mining engineers in the future. They are buying a trained product, and the industry is suffering because they did not do that 20 or 30 years ago. They need to ensure a steady supply of well-trained personnel: engineers, vocational technicians, whatever.”
Mutual interest between Mongolia and UAF complements this concept, Ganguli continued, as the Asian country and the state of Alaska share some basic characteristics: same approximate area size, water conservation challenges (“we don’t have deserts, but we certainly have a frozen north,”) and even “random wild-catting,” similar to Alaskan placer mining. And in Mongolia, “Everybody wants to be a mining person,” he emphasized. “That’s the only place in the world where, if you’re a mining engineer, you can actually walk with your head held high—you’re not getting persecuted.”
Another critical consideration is Mongolia’s “third neighbor” policy developing relationships with other countries, as Chancellor Rogers pointed out, “There’s a long-standing relationship between Alaska and Mongolia…because of the Mongolian interest in the U.S. When you’re a landlocked country stuck between Russia and China, having an ally like the United States is a plus. So we can see opportunities for our students over there and their students over here. Ultimately it changes the flavor of our campus and brings a richer experience for our students here.”
Both educators continually stressed how such increased intercultural and social interaction can do nothing but improve quality of understanding and human performance on all levels. As Rogers added, “one of the key issues in the world is how mining companies work with local populations wherever they may be. They essentially get their ‘social license to operate’ by the way they treat local people.” Increased exposure to cultural diversity and exchange with programs of this type will hopefully lead to more effective, productive communication and commercial results, specifically for the mining industry as it recognizes and supports mining education.
As Ganguli repeatedly observed, “Many things I teach in classes are from Australia and Canada because they’re the ones spending the money. They’re the ones doing the research. We are behind—mining education and research in this country is behind the world leaders because nobody is spending the money—we don’t really care.”
Or do we? What’s in your wallet?
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Kathryn G. Arlen is a freelance writer and communication consultant in Fairbanks, Alaska and can be reached at email@example.com.