Brain drain in Canada threatens mining’s future – by Agence France-Presse (Montreal Gazette – June 29, 2011)

MONTREAL — A shortage of mining specialists in Canada is hobbling the industry at a time when emerging giants India and China are pushing demand for ores and precious metals to record highs, experts say.

“You can’t find good geologists,” Rene Marion, chief executive of AuRico Gold, a Canadian company with mining operations in Mexico, told AFP.

“Hiring is a major, major problem,” echoed Jean-Marc Lulin, head of junior mining company Azimut Exploration. Canada is home to several major multinational mining firms, including Barrick, the world’s largest gold producer, with operations on five continents.

Companies are desperate for geologists, mining engineers and workers with metallurgical, chemical, electrical and environmental expertise, as well as good managers, according to McGill University’s Hani Mitri.

The reasons for the skills shortage are numerous, so no one solution will fix the problem quickly, but primarily, Lulin said. “The industry is cyclical, so there are periods of contraction and periods of expansion. During each period of contraction, there’s an incredible loss of know-how,” he said.

Enrollment in Canadian university mining programs plummeted during the last recession in 2000, creating “a huge gap in the market for specialists . . . with 10 years experience to make things happen in the mines,” Mitri said.

“There were no jobs for them, so they went elsewhere.” As a result, the average age of a mining professional today is over 50, double what it was a generation ago.

Executives at companies like AuRico are becoming increasingly worried about the future of the industry as the current generation of specialists prepares to retire with few coming up to replace them.

Universities have never graduated more than a trickle of mining professionals each year, but the closure of several mining schools in Europe and the United States over the last decade has exacerbated the shortage.

And those schools that remain do not have enough teachers or resources, Mitri said, adding: “They’re not prepared for a boom.”

He pointed to a recent study that found that 300 people would graduate with degrees in various mining disciplines from nine Canadian universities this year, too few to fill some 1,000 vacant positions in Canada alone.

The industry is partly to blame for not investing in the schools. “As an industry we have to help Queen’s (in Ontario) and McGill (in Montreal), one of the best mining schools in the world, but which (currently) doesn’t put out many mining engineers and geologists,” said Marion.

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