Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.
Maureen Arges Nadin is a Thunder Bay-based freelance writer.
The recent buzz of interest in the flourishing Ontario mining sector has left many people asking, “Where are the jobs?”
We tend to derive our information from what we see directly in front of us, and most mines are far away or, in many cases, remote. Job-seekers wanting to remain closer to home are left wondering if there are options for those who don’t want to work in a traditional mine setting.
There is a larger picture that might not be immediately evident to observers outside of the industry. It is the mining service and supply chain.
Jobs in mining have a multiplying effect, and although the numbers vary slightly according to the area, it is a generally accepted equation that for every direct job in mining extraction, there are two to four jobs in mining supply. The recently released Mining Readiness Strategy defines the supply chain as “spinoff activities that cycle through the entire economy through the provision of goods and services to the mining sector.”
In Thunder Bay and region, there is a lot more going on in the mining industry than meets the eye.
The CEDC has produced a 40-page Thunder Bay — Mining Sector Goods and Services Directory which groups a variety of businesses into 24 categories which represent aspects of the major sequences of the mining process: exploration; evaluation; development; and production. Each one provides a critical service or supply to the mining process.
To better understand the inter-relationships of the service and supply chain, it’s helpful to look at how some local businesses are working with mining companies.
All mining activity begins with exploration, and there is a lot of sophisticated equipment as well as personnel that must be transported to remote field sites.
Wisk Air, a local charter company that has been in operation for 32 years, works with mining companies that are in the exploration and development stages, counting companies like Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. and Noront Resources Ltd. among its customers.
President and operations manager Mark Wiskemann estimates that in the current mining cycle, 70 to 75 per cent of his business is dedicated to servicing mining development projects.
“We move the personnel from the staging area to the field,” Wiskemann said, adding that most mining companies prefer to contract out for air transportation due to the complexity of aviation and the specific licensing and certifications that are required.
Wisk Air personnel are highly specialized, and the pilots are specifically trained in long line hauling, a rather dramatic process that involves transporting a piece of equipment which is suspended under the helicopter. Given that the average diamond drill, commonly used in exploration, weighs between 6,600 and 10,000 pounds, it can require 15 to 20 trips with approximately 2,600 pounds of equipment hauled each time.
Wiskemann pointed out that the long line process requires a great deal of precision as pilots are landing equipment in a small area of just a few feet — a job which mining companies clearly believe is better left to the experts.
The development sequence of mining requires a diverse set of supplies and services, and in a classic illustration of a profession that has applied its transferable skill from one sector to another, KBM Resources Group is working as another link in the supply chain by providing services to clients such as Cliffs, Noront and other exploration companies.
Historically a forestry consulting service, Thunder Bay’s KBM has adapted its professional expertise as foresters and technicians to assist mining companies with the infrastructure that is critical to development.
Managing partner Peter Higgelke explained the process succinctly:
Mines require roads and “foresters builds more roads than anyone else.”
The company’s field services division employs forestry technicians who use their skills to locate roads and bridges, as well as cuts and drilled holes in addition to providing aerial survey services so companies can see how they can monitor landscape changes.
KBM also provides the only LiDAR (light detection and ranging) service in Northwestern Ontario, providing data to permit definition of the topography in three dimensions, enabling mining companies to determine the best location for roads and other necessary infrastructure.
Production is the sequence of the mining process when active mining starts to take place.
Construction may be ongoing for a period of time, and locally owned and operated Coastal Steel Construction Ltd. works closely with mining companies to provide three fundamental parts of the construction process: supplying steel directly to companies; fabrication services such as welding and painting; and installation of the steel that is the primary component of most head frames (the structural frame above the mine shaft).
During the latter phase, ironworkers work at the mine site as part of the hands-on team.
Coastal Steel president Domiano Pelaia said he appreciates the strong connection that his company has to the mining industry.
“It’s been a good year,” he said, estimating that 60 per cent of his company’s current work is related to mining.
The mining industry is large and multi-faceted, and consists of much more than the mines we see in front of us, or more often, far away from us.
There are 1,200 to 2,000 jobs in the Thunder Bay region mining supply chain.
The “big picture” and the opportunities that are part of it are closer than you might think.