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Nine new miners graduate from UAS

Posted: October 30, 2011 - 12:12am
Mining student Dan Cooper receives his class certificate from trainer Jim "Smitty" Smith during a graduation ceremony Friday for nine students in the University of Alaska Southeast's Mining and Petroleum Training Services program.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Mining student Dan Cooper receives his class certificate from trainer Jim "Smitty" Smith during a graduation ceremony Friday for nine students in the University of Alaska Southeast's Mining and Petroleum Training Services program.

Kensington and Greens Creek mines have a fresh crop of nine miners after graduation day at the University of Alaska Southeast center for mine training.

The five-week program was expedited to three weeks due to manpower needs at the mines near Juneau. Even with a shortened course, students spent 200 hours training underground in real conditions at the AJ Mine.

“The reason for doing this training is not training for training sake, it’s so we can get Alaskans into these jobs,” Michelle Zenger, Human Resources Manager for Coeur Kensington Gold Mine.

Many of the graduates have already received interviews and job offers from Kensington and Greens Creek. In the past four courses, 95 percent of graduates are placed in a mine, said Human Resources Manager for Greens Creek.

University, mining and government officials met early on Oct. 28 to celebrate with the graduates, including Republican Juneau Rep. Cathy Muñoz, UAS Provost Richard Caulfield, director of the UAS Center for Mine Training Mike Bell and David Stone, Deputy Commissioner of Labor. The commencement was held at the UAS technical center on Egan Drive across from Juneau-Douglas high school.

The mining training program started in the 1980s around the time Greens Creek Mine opened on Admiralty Island. The lead-zinc-silver-gold mine is owned by Helca mining company. The class has run off and on, depending on local mines’ need for workers.

Right now there is a large demand for miners Bell said. “We try to do this every spring and every fall,” he said.

The graduates in the room looked physically fit, able to handle the tough labor found in a mine. They seemed to grow close as a group after weeks working together underground. Students and instructors shared many inside jokes and nicknames. After the ceremony, several of the graduates paid compliments to their instructors, Jim “Smitty” Smith, Sam Reeves and Matt Cook.

“Just call him ‘Smitty,’” they said.

“We tried to get six weeks of work out of them in three weeks,” Smith said.

Smith said he tries to instill teamwork and dedication into the students, the importance of hard work and the need to watch out for fellow miners. Smith comes from a family of miners and prefers to spend his time around other miners.

“The best people in the world are miners,” he said.

Smith said the graduates spent quite a bit of time working with a jackleg — a 130-pound pneumatic drill that each man works by hand.

“We trained them on the jackleg even if they won’t ever use it, but maybe it toughened them up a little. Who knows, maybe someday there will be a jackleg waiting for them somewhere,” Smith said.

Blonde, in his late 20s, tough with a fresh scratch on his forehead, William John Bennett Jr. won the jackleg competition.

“Once you get it collared and started you just start hitting the cob which puts air to the jack and pushes it in and you got the throttle [on the leg] and it just going. It’s brutal, it’s brutal,” Bennett said.

Bennett has worked in logging and as a heavy equipment operator. He said he moved to mining because “logging’s kind of on a downfall,” he said and it is seasonal, while mining is year-round.

“And the money is double what I was making,” Bennett said.

Bennett accepted a position as a bull gang member at Greens Creek.Although he received multiple offers, he chose Greens Creek so he can return home to his family each night.

Bennett said the class prepared him well for life in the mine.

“Safety is everything,” Bennett said. “You’re definitely alert. You put your headlamp on and you go in there and it’s serious business.”

The first graduate called up to receive his certificate, Lucas Zimmer, is a strong young man in suspenders, dark hair, calm and soft-spoken.

Zimmer was a mill worker on Prince of Wales Island before coming to Juneau for the class.

“I’ll double my yearly income,” Zimmer said.

He plans to bring his wife and four children to Juneau in a few months.

“It’s definitely going to change my life. New career, more money,” he said.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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