McGuinty Should Establish Laurentian as the Harvard of the Mining Sector – by Stan Sudol

Premier McGuinty should consolidate the province’s scattered post-secondary mineral education programs at Laurentian University and establish a world-class centre of excellence – a Harvard of the Mining Sector.

In one visionary initiative, the Premier could give Sudbury an economic boost, help resolve mining skilled labour shortages, spend university funding more efficiently and be in sync with the recently published provincial report “Ontario in the Creative Age” by Richard Florida and Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management.

Notwithstanding the current commodity slump, there is a demographic time bomb ticking in the mineral sector as the baby boomers get ready to retire. It is believed that 60% of geo scientists – the people who find new mineral deposits – in Canada will be 65 or older by 2015.

In early 2008, the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MIHR) projected that mining industry yearly labour requirements face three scenarios: high-growth (9,200), no-growth (6,200), and industry contraction (4,600), until 2016.  These were only based on retirements.

Without a steady supply of adequately trained skilled workers, the Canadian mineral sector’s ongoing competitiveness and expansion will be severely affected.

Once the recession is over the mining industry will be the first to bounce back as vital mineral commodities will once again be in demand by China, India and other developing countries that will continue to industrialize and urbanize at a phenomenal pace never before seen in the history of the world.

On the other hand, southern Ontario’s manufacturing and auto sectors will continue to struggle due to lower cost off-shore producers, ensuring that the mineral industry’s importance to the provincial economy continues to grow. It is in Ontario’s best interests that the training of skilled mining professionals be given much more attention. As the recent provincial report, Ontario in the Creative Age states, “We must build a talent and education system attuned to the demands of the global creative economy. The province must become the world’s leading talent and educational province.”

According to the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE) there were about 23,000 engineering students in Ontario’s universities in 2007. The three institutes that offered mining engineering – Sudbury’s Laurentian, Queens University in Kingston and the University of Toronto – had only 255 students enrolled.

There are 12 geo-science departments across Ontario with about 620 students enrolled in 2005. They include U of T, Queens, Laurentian and nine others. Of these only 230 have the academic background courses to qualify for registration as a professional geoscientist in Ontario.

The major challenges in providing mineral education programs are the high cost of technology and equipment combined with low student numbers. Funding is enrolment-driven and with the small number of students scattered in three mining engineering and twelve geo-science programs across the province it is increasingly difficult for institutions to maintain the curriculum to produce graduates with the necessary skills. In many instances mining programs have been placed within other departments, producing a loss of mining focus and decreased relevance to the industry.

Why Sudbury’s Laurentian University?

The Sudbury Basin is the richest mining district in North America and among the top ten most strategic globally. It also has one the world’s highest concentrations of hard-rock mines with an ensuing level of underground technical expertise that is augmented by Laurentian – the only University in Canada located within a mining region. Half the province’s mining activity and revenue are generated here and Sudbury is also located within a five-hour drive of  three of Northern Ontario’s four other major mining camps, Timmins, Kirkland Lake and Hemlo. The community is also the third largest cluster of mining supply and service companies in the country. Most industry experts predict that the prolific Sudbury Basin will still be producing nickel, copper and platinum group metals a century from now.

Although Laurentian may be one of the smaller universities in the province, it has a strong commitment to mineral sector research. The University’s vision statement says, “Laurentian University will become the national centre of expertise in geosciences and mining innovation – education, research, technology and commercialization – by energetically building on acknowledged strengths in mineral exploration, mining engineering, robotics, and environmental sciences.” No other university in Canada has a mission statement that explicitly expresses their research and teaching commitment to mining and exploration.

Currently, Laurentian’s Earth Sciences geology department’s Mineral Exploration Research Centre (MERC) represents the largest cluster of geoscientists conducting ore deposit related research of any university in North America.

Laurentian’s Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) will be focussing on key areas of research in mining tele-robotics, mine process engineering, deep mining and environmental reclamation.

A large engineering school with well-funded research programs anchors every internationally successful technology cluster. Clusters are concentrations of related companies and service providers present in a specific city or region. Many economists believe clusters are the future key to wealth creation and the establishment of high paying jobs, primarily through the global export of goods and services.

The best example of this is California’s Silicon Valley and its strong connection with Stanford University’s renowned engineering faculty. The technology-related sectors of science, math and engineering are the value-added wealth creators of any society or country. These connections support cluster businesses that create and apply new technologies and successfully compete globally.  In most technology clusters, many of the start-up firms are spun-off from university research activities.

“The concentration of people and industries is one of the most powerful of all economic forces” states the recent provincial report Ontario in the Creative Age. “ The great economist Alford Marshall noted the power of clustering or what he called agglomeration. Economists had long understood that industries and economies can and do benefit from “economies of scale,” but what Marshall discovered is that a similar kind of productivity gains can come from businesses and people that work together in a place together.”

Resistance from Queens and U of T Lassonde Institute

Many people in the mining sector know that the current system of mineral education in Ontario is not sustainable. However, a serious stumbling block for consolidating the programs into one world-class facility with critical mass is the alumni, especially from the two oldest mining faculties, University of Toronto and Queens. The alumni provide enormous amounts of money to these institutions and would resist the closing of any mineral departments.

In particular, the Lassonde Institute for Engineering Geoscience at the University of Toronto would vehemently fight its relocation to Sudbury. A little background on the Lassonde Institute is in order. Pierre Lassonde is one of Canada’s most successful and high-profile mining entrepreneurs. In 1997, at a time when the industry was in the doldrums, he generously donated $5 million to establish the Lassonde Geological and Mining Engineering program. But many in the industry will confess that the Lassonde Institute has been diluted from its original mining focus to encompass other engineering faculties.

The consolidation of all these smaller mineral departments into one location would enormously benefit the entire mining sector. It may also entice significant new funding from the industry as one centralized facility could take advantage of economies of scale by teaching all of the province’s future mining engineering and geology students. This critical mass of mining expertise would draw students from around the world like the legendary Colorado School of Mines at its peak a generation ago.

In 2008, for the first time in human history, more than half of the global population will be living in cities resulting in unprecedented demands for mineral products to build the necessary infrastructure.

An explosive demand for skilled mining geologists and engineers to find and develop the future mineral deposits as well as keep the present ones running will be one of the most significant global challenges the mining industry faces. Individually, the engineering and geology departments within the Ontario university system do not have the resources necessary to modernize due to low enrolments.

With provincial billion-dollar deficits for the next few years and an underfunded university system in desperate need of more resources, consolidating the post-secondary mineral education programs into one world-class facility at Laurentian and turning that institute into the Harvard of the mining sector would contribute enormous benefits to Sudbury and the entire mineral sector.

As “Ontario in the Creative Age” states, “Now is the time for Ontarians to take bold actions to ensure our future prosperity. … Productive and future oriented investment will generate prosperity for the long term.” “Our future advantage in the creative age will be based on facilitating and encouraging the geographic clustering and concentration of industries and skills.”

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based executive speech writer and communications consultant who produces a mining blog. www.republicofmining.com

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