An Overview of the Mining Industry

The US Department of Labor presents an informative overview of the United States mining industry. The following is a summary of the US metal ore mining industry taken from The Labor Department Bureau of Labor Statistics (1)

The Metal Ore Mining Industry

Organization

The metal ore mining industry covers the extraction of metal ores, including the naturally occurring mineral, gold. Gold is used primarily in jewelry and high-end electronics.

Most metals, including gold, do not exist in concentrated form but rather in small traces in rock called "ore". Indistinguishable from regular rocks to the untrained eye, some ores are currently mined that contain only a fraction of a percent of metal. As a result, a massive amount of rock must be extracted from the ground in order to obtain a useable amount of metal. As a result of this, metal mines can be much larger than, say, coal mines, and operate in more extreme environments—while coal mines are rarely more than a few hundred feet underground, gold mines can be over a mile below the surface.

Like coal mines, metal ore mines are found in both surface and underground varieties, depending on where the ore deposit is located. Underground mining of ore is less common than surface mining because underground mining usually occurs only when rich veins of ore are discovered, or when mineral prices are high enough to justify the added expense.

A significant amount of processing is needed to convert ore into usable metal. The mining industry includes initial mineral processing and preparation activities that are located together with mines as part of the extraction process.

Work Environment

Work environments in the mining industry vary by occupation. Scientists and technicians work in office buildings and laboratories, as do executives and administrative and clerical workers. Engineers and managers usually split their time between offices and the mine, where construction and extraction workers spend most of their time. Geologists who specialize in the exploration of natural resources to locate resource deposits may have to travel for extended periods to remote locations, in all types of climates.

Working conditions in mines can be unusual and sometimes dangerous. Physical strength and stamina are necessary, as the work involves standing for long periods, lifting moderately heavy objects, and climbing and stooping to work with tools that often are oily and dirty.

Underground mines are damp and dark, and some can be very hot and noisy. At times, several inches of water may cover tunnel floors. Although underground mines have electric lights along main pathways, many tunnels are illuminated only by the lights on miner’s hats. Workers in mines with very low roofs may have to work on their hands and knees, backs, or stomachs, in confined spaces. In underground mining operations, unique dangers include the possibility of a cave-in, mine fire, explosion, or exposure to harmful gases. In addition, dust generated by drilling in mines still places gold miners at risk of developing a serious lung disease: silicosis, caused by inhaling rock dust. These days, dust levels in mines are closely monitored and occurrences of lung diseases are rare if proper procedures are followed. Underground miners have the option to have their lungs x-rayed on a periodic basis to monitor for the development of the disease. Workers who develop silicosis may be eligible for Federal aid.

Recent Developments

Many resources produced by the mining industry, particularly metals, oil, and gas, are relatively rare and are part of a global market that is highly sensitive to changes in prices. During the 1990s, commodity prices were relatively stable at low levels, causing production to stagnate and limiting the creation of new drilling and mining operations.

However, as the commodity market increases in value and the price of gold escalates, the cost of gold mining projects become more financially feasible, with larger market profits promising to offset rising production costs.

Employment in the mining industry has been affected significantly by new technology and more sophisticated mining techniques that increase productivity. Most mining machines and control rooms are now automatic or computer-controlled, requiring fewer, if any, human operators. Many mines also operate with other sophisticated technology such as lasers and robotics, which further increases the efficiency of resource extraction. As a result, mine employment has been falling over time, particularly of workers who are involved in the extraction process itself.

These new technologies and techniques have also increased specialization in the industry and led to expanded use of contract mining services companies for specific tasks. These companies also allow mining firms to more easily adjust production levels in response to changes in commodity prices.

Industry Earnings

Average earnings of wage and salary workers in mining were significantly higher than the average for all industries. In 2006, production workers, earned $22.39 an hour in metal ore mining, compared to the private industry average of $16.76 an hour (table 2). Earnings in selected occupations in specified mining industries appear in table 3.

Employment in mining will decrease. The growing U.S. and world economies will continue to demand larger quantities of the raw materials produced by mining, but the increased output will be able to be met by new technologies and new extraction techniques that increase productivity and require fewer workers.

Table 2. Average earnings of nonsupervisory workers in mining, 2006
Industry segment Weekly Hourly



Total, private industry $568 $16.76



Mining 939 20.29
Coal mining 1093 22.08
Metal ore mining 974 22.39
Oil and gas extraction 921 21.40
Support activities for mining 921 19.65
Nonmetallic mineral mining and quarrying 863 18.74

Table 3. Median hourly earnings of the largest occupations in mining, May 2006
Occupation Mining, except oil and gas Oil and gas extraction Support activities for mining All industries
General and operations managers $39.91 $51.17 $38.81 $40.97
First-line supervisors/managers of construction trades and extraction workers 30.08 29.39 27.03 25.89
Rotary drill operators, oil and gas - 19.50 18.43 18.49
Service unit operators, oil, gas, and mining - 17.65 15.57 15.82
Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators 17.48 19.32 15.17 17.74
Helpers--extraction workers 17.20 12.13 13.87 13.79
Truck drivers, heavy and tractor-trailer 16.03 13.93 14.67 16.85
Excavating and loading machine and dragline operators 16.02 - 14.05 15.83
Derrick operators, oil and gas - 15.73 17.53 17.42
Roustabouts, oil and gas - 12.65 12.47 12.36

Mining Industry Employment

Employment in mining for metal ores is expected to grow by about 9 percent through 2016 as continued high prices for metals will lead to increased production. Because metals are used primarily as raw materials by other industries, such as the jewelry and telecommunications industry in the case of gold, the strength of the metal ore mining industry is greatly affected by the strength of these industries. Most metals are sold and bought in a world market, so demand stems not only from domestic industries but also from fast growing industries in developing countries. Demand from these countries has caused prices for many metals to increase substantially in recent years. This has caused U.S. mining companies to expand production at existing mines and restart production at some mines that were closed in the past when low metal prices made them unprofitable. However, employment growth in metal ore mining will be moderated by many of the same technological advances and environmental concerns as coal mining.

It is projected that employment in mining jobs will decrease. The growing U.S. and world economies will continue to demand larger quantities of the raw materials produced by mining, but the increased output will be able to be met by new technologies and new extraction techniques that increase productivity and require fewer workers.

Wage and salary employment in mining is expected to decline by 2 percent through the year 2016, compared with 11 percent growth projected for the entire economy. Mining production is tied closely with prices and demand for the raw materials produced, and as prices for oil, gas, and metals have risen rapidly in recent years, production and employment in the industry have also grown. Further short-term increases in employment may be likely if prices remain high, but over the course of the projections period, technological advances will increase productivity and cause employment declines in the mining industry as a whole.

Job Prospects

Despite an overall decline in mining industry employment, job opportunities in most occupations should be very good because workers in the mining industry are older than average. Some companies may have trouble coping with the loss of many experienced workers to retirement at a time when the industry is expanding production.

At the same time, past declines in employment in the industry have dissuaded potential workers from considering employment in the industry, and many colleges and universities have shut down programs designed to train professionals for work in mining. Employment opportunities will be best for those with previous experience and with technical skills, especially qualified professionals and extraction workers who have experience and who can work with new technology."

Mining Industry Occupations

While many mining jobs can be entered directly from high school, the increasing sophistication of equipment and machinery requires a higher level of technical skill.

Professional and Related Occupations (~$39.91 per hour as per Table 3)

Before any mining can actually begin, a deposit of the resource needs to be found. This is the primary work of geologists and geological technicians, who travel around the world using tools such as seismic data and core samples to locate deposits of sufficient size and purity for extraction. Mining and geological engineers then formulate the general plan for how the mining operation will be undertaken. They design, with drafters and engineering technicians, the general structure of the mine, and the most efficient method of extraction. These engineers generally supervise mine activities throughout the entire lifecycle of the project, troubleshooting any problems and ensuring smooth operations.

For professional positions, a bachelor’s degree is required, usually in engineering or one of the physical sciences. A number of colleges and universities have mining schools or departments and programs in mining or oil and gas extraction, particularly those in States with large numbers of mining or oil and gas field operations.

Environmental positions require regulatory knowledge and a strong natural science background, or a background in a technical field, such as environmental engineering or hydrology. To date, most environmental professionals have been drawn from the ranks of engineers and scientists who have had experience in the mining industry. Universities and mining schools have introduced more environmental coursework into their programs, and mining firms are hiring professionals from existing environment-related disciplines and training them to meet their companies’ needs.

Job Training and Advancement

There are few formal education requirements for new extraction workers, although a considerable amount of job training and experience is needed before workers can perform most duties or advance to more skilled positions. Skilled maintenance and construction workers usually need several years of vocational training in their field, while workers in professional occupations need at least a bachelor’s degree.


Extraction Workers' Qualifications

Workers in extraction occupations such as gold mining usually must be at least 18 years old, be in good physical condition, and pass a drug test. A high school diploma is not necessarily required, but is usually preferred; some companies also require workers to pass a basic skills test.

Most workers start as helpers to experienced workers and learn skills on the job; however, formal training is becoming more important, as more technologically advanced machinery and methods are used. Given the increasing complexity of operations and the sophisticated nature of technology used today, employers now demand a higher level of skill and adaptability, including the ability to work with computers and other more complex equipment.

As a result, some employers prefer to hire recent graduates of high school vocational programs in mining or graduates of junior college or technical school programs in mine technology. Such programs usually are found only at schools in mining areas.

Because of the unique dangers in mining operations, workers also need extensive safety training. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 mandates that each U.S. mine have an approved worker training program in health and safety issues. Each plan must include at least 40 hours of basic safety training for new miners with no experience in underground mines, and 24 hours for new miners in surface mines. In addition to new miner training, each miner must receive at least 8 hours of refresher safety training a year, and miners assigned to new jobs must receive safety training relating to their new task."

Extraction, Transportation, Material Moving Occupations (~$16.03 -$30.08 per hour as per Table 3)

The main work of resource extraction is done by the workers who operate the equipment that builds the mine and that removes the ore when it is reached. Most underground metal mining occupations are unique to underground metal mining.

The workers involved in mining metal underground vary based on the mining method used. In conventional underground mining, typically used currently only when metal ores are being mined, drilling-machine operators drill holes in the ore where the blasters place explosives. This potentially dangerous work requires workers to follow safety procedures, such as making sure everyone is clear of the area before the explosives are detonated. After the blast, loading-machine operators scoop up the material using a power shovel and deposit it in a truck for transport to the surface. Self contained load-haul-dump machines are also used to both scoop up and transport the ore.

Many other workers are needed to operate safe and efficient underground mines. Before miners are allowed underground, a mine safety inspector checks the work area for such hazards as loose roofs, dangerous gases, and inadequate ventilation. If safety standards are not met, the inspector prohibits the mine from operating until conditions are made safe. Rock-dust machine operators spray the mine walls and floor to hold down dust, which can be a safety hazard. Roof bolters operate the machines that automatically install roof support bolts to prevent roof cave-ins, the biggest cause of mining injuries. Brattice builders construct doors, walls, and partitions in tunnel passageways to force air into the work areas.

Construction, Installation, Maintenance, Repair Occupations

Other workers, who are not directly involved in the extraction process, work in and around the mines. For example, mechanics are needed to repair and maintain the wide variety of machinery, and electricians are needed to check and install electrical wiring. Mechanical and electrical repair work has become increasingly complex, as machinery and other equipment have become computerized. Carpenters construct and maintain benches, bins, and stoppings (barricades to prevent airflow through a tunnel). These workers generally need specialized training to work under unusual conditions. Mechanics in underground mines, for example, may have to repair machines while on their knees, with only their headlamps to illuminate the working area.

Most skilled occupations in construction or maintenance require several years of vocational training or experience in the occupation. Many schools in areas with mining operations often offer specialized mine technology programs. Enrollment in these programs can lead to a certificate in mine technology after 1 year, an associate degree after 2 years, or a bachelor’s degree after 4 years. Courses cover areas such as mine ventilation, roof bolting, and machinery repairs. Specialized training on equipment use and repair may also be provided by equipment manufacturers.

(1)  Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2008-09 Edition, Mining click here for article (visited October 13, 2008 ).

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