Help wanted:[in Northwestern Ontario mining sector] – Special to The Chronicle-Journal (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – February 13, 2012)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

Job seekers in Northern Ontario might be feeling perpetually discouraged when faced with headlines about high unemployment (nearly 12 per cent according to some reports), and the newest round of layoffs and job losses. Factor in the dismal state of the economy in the past few years and those looking for work or a career change may not be feeling very hopeful these days.

But where other industries may be gearing down, the mining sector, particularly in this region, is gearing up.

Because there are eight major exploration projects in the region that will result in mineral-producing mines between 2013 and 2017, there will be a strong demand for skilled labour and professionals in the next few years. Metals to be mined include gold, copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and chromium, a major component of stainless steel, which would be produced from chromite extracted from the highly prized Ring of Fire.

And if numbers like a 12-per-cent unemployment rate are daunting, counter those figures with a quick snapshot of the vacancies advertised in January on the Career Mine website. As of Jan. 5, for example, there were 2,593 jobs listed in the mining sector Canada-wide.

To bring that to a local level, John Mason, project manager at CEDC Mining Services, has done some number crunching. He anticipates that the eight exploration projects will need to do some serious recruiting to find the 4,405 workers who will be needed in the construction phase of the mines, as well as 3,751 new personnel to be required in the post-construction phase during the life of the mine.

This is good news with the potential to shine a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy job market in Northwestern Ontario.

But stakeholders in both exploration and production areas of the mining sector are wondering if there are going to be enough skilled workers that are a “fit” for the skill set needed to get their projects up and running.

Human resources are as critical to the mining process as the technology and equipment. A shortage of skilled workers could slow down the exploration process.

Mason said he hopes the situation will turn around before that happens.

“Mineral exploration and mining professions are rewarding and well-paying jobs with great Northwestern Ontario employment options,” he said.

Garry Clark, executive director of the Ontario Prospectors Association, has some thoughts about why people may shy away from a career in mining.

Clark, who is on the lookout for skilled workers such as geologists, technicians, diamond drillers and prospectors as well as manual labourers to participate in the exploration component of the sector, said the industry is highly cyclical and dependent on constantly changing commodity prices.

“If the business is not looking particularly robust,” he observed, “less people are going into it.”
He also noted that the skill and labour shortage is worldwide, but added he feels that the current interest and enthusiasm related to the Ring of Fire will create an awareness and interest in the mining sector that could help with the recruitment of trained workers to fill vacancies.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty spoke of it in his throne speech, saying, “and the province now knows more about exploration in Northwestern Ontario than they ever have in the past.”

Clark said he feels that the skilled labour shortage could be addressed if there were more opportunities for workers to receive good training in the mining sector’s diverse skill sets.

That view is shared by Brad Corrigan, general manager of the Lac des lles mine, who provides a perspective from the development and operation side of the industry.

Corrigan, who oversees 300 employees at the mine and another 300 contractors, said he is “constantly looking for people right now.”

Labour requirements will change according to what specific phase of a project is underway.

“For example, we’re developing an underground mine right now, so we require a specific set of skills,” he said “However, some of this requirement will disappear in a year-and-a-half to two years.”

Mines traditionally provide their own training programs, but Corrigan said that mines in general have not done a particularly good job of succession planning, and with the current demographics there are few experienced younger workers.

This is compounded by the fact that mining programs that are currently offered at post-secondary institutions are graduating few people. In order to recruit and train the engineers, mechanics, electricians, environmental staff, supervisors, lab technicians and operators that the industry will require, Corrigan said it would be helpful to squash the misconception that mining is “a dirty job.”
“A high percentage of the people working in the industry have little direct contact with the extraction of the rock,” he said.

Mason has some thoughts on how the sector will continue its efforts to address the labour shortage now and in the future.

“The mining industry has to continue to share their labour vision and requirements with the college, the university, First Nations and the labour community.”

The next instalment in this series will examine how local educational institutions are preparing to address the labour shortage in the mining sector.

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