Q&A: Should I become a mining engineer

Recently, I received an e-mail from a high-school senior.  He asked me if he should go to university to study to become a mining engineer.  Here is my reply to him—I trust he does not mind me sharing it with others who may be asking the same question.

Let me set out for you a few ideas that may help in coming to a decision.  Presumably from reading the blog you have some idea of my background and perspective, so please consider what I say in the light of the fact that I blog, something few in the industry do.

My first response on reading your e-mail was this:  we need more people like him in the industry; I hope he decides to become a mining engineer.

    The fact is that mining engineers consistently earn more than most other engineers.  Chemical engineers do very well too—but I have never been fascinated by chemistry.  Thus you will probably earn well as a mining engineer.   However, it is not necessarily the folk on the mines who earn the most in mining.  The people really earning are the consultants to the industry, and the folk who work the financial aspects of mining.   Thus think about the difference between working on a mine and working as a consultant to mines and/or working for the banks that finance the mines.  

In mining as in any other industry there are ups and downs.  The skilled survive; the incompetent suffer.  I do not think that cyclicity of employment should be a criterion.  Even those working for government these days are likely to be fired or downsized.  And that use to be the one sure way to have secure employment.  My son is an officer in the Navy—his job is secure—but only until he turns 45 when they could kick him out too.  Point is there is no security of employment anywhere these days, so rather elect to do what you will enjoy doing it; for if you enjoy doing it, you will have work.

    Keep in mind that mining studies are amongst the easiest.  Try electrical if you seek hard stuff to study.  But it really does not matter how hard or easy the course work.  The point is that nothing anybody learns at University is really used in practice.  We used to say that you have to earn your bread-ticket at university and then learn to apply your intelligence to real-world problems.  All you will learn in any engineering degree is how to think and decide.

Certainly the world of mining, once you have a degree is vast and open.  From running the underground workings to planning new pits, to working for NGOs that keep a wary eye on mining folk doing bad things.   But then so too is civil engineering. Keep  in mind that I am a civil engineer, and both my daughters have chosen to become civil engineers.  Funny thing though, in my opinion, mines need civil engineers almost as much as they need mining engineers. 

You indicate a liking of theater, you write very well, and are obviously fascinated by many things.  You cannot do it all.  Some things you will have to specialize in, and others will have to remain a side interest for fun, pleasure, and enlightenment.  Opera is one of mine.  Not sure I would like to work with an opera company though.  Maybe if I did it again, I would become a carpenter doing fine woodwork, or a professor of Indo-European languages, or an archaeologist specializing in Australopithecus.  Keep in mind I got a law degree after my civil engineering masters degree.  I changed my mind a number of time.  I predict you will too. 

Point is commit to a course of action that provides you with the greatest number of choices.  My boss always says: have five things going at any one time; you can be sure three will fail; two will succeed; and you will have to decide how to turn one of the two into five more opportunities. 

As for universities. I would go to Colorado.  A nice place; a reasonable reputation; and good contacts.  Although NM Tech is in a part of the world that I love.  I lived six years in Albuquerque.  Trouble is it is remote and may be a bit lonely for the average student.  Better weather than Colorado though.

Regarding damage done by mines.  Mines have caused much damage.  But that is not a good reason to avoid the industry.  For if good men do not step forward to improve things, who will?  I have spent most of my professional life on tailings and am still having a wonderful time improving things. 

Take a look at EduMine, which is part of InfoMine, to get a better idea of the range of topics that mining and civil engineers in mining deal with.  I have a few courses up.  

Good luck with your deliberations and decision making.  Go with your gut feel, but exercise your judgment only after doing all you can to get the facts.

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