UAS miner training program prompted by industry demand

State has supported UAS Center for Mine Training

“Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operatings” students had an opportunity to see a mine firsthand in March, when the Southeast Alaska cohort of the University of Alaska Southeast class for high school seniors toured the Coeur Alaska Kensington Gold Mine.


Students left their youth hostel well before dawn to board buses headed for the dock at Yankee Cove. After a short boat ride north to the mine, students ate breakfast, watched a safety video, put on their gear — reflective vests, miners’ hard hats and utility belts with chemical oxygen “self-rescuers” attached to them ­— and split into two groups to tour underground and see the above-ground operations at the mine.

“My grandpa used to work in the Greens Creek Mine,” said student Joe Smith of Wrangell, while eating lunch at Kensington during the mine tour. “And so he kind of got me interested in mining and everything. So I decided to take this class because he said it would probably be fun and a good opportunity for me. And it really has been. … Taking a tour of a mine is basically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

At Kensington, students met miners working in a number of areas — from driving vehicles to processing ore to assaying rock samples — and got to see how they do their jobs.

“Most people think it’s just driving trucks and going down in tunnels, but there’s all kinds of processes,” Smith said.

Many miners have backgrounds in other jobs.

Mike Garrison, who works in Kensington’s assay laboratory, said he majored in physics in college, when he wanted to become a meteorologist.

“The science background really helped me a lot with this job,” said Garrison. “I don’t have a chemistry degree, so to speak, but for the mathematics part of it, and also just the basic chemistry that’s going on, I really need that background.”

Several miners said they came to the mines after working in the timber industry.

Arnoldo Tapia, who drove the “tour bus” — a muddy, battered school bus with its lettering creatively altered to read “Stool Bus” — on which students rode through the tunnels of Kensington, said he came from a 13-year stint in logging.

“I would recommend anybody that wants to go to college to be a (geological) mine engineer,” said Tapia. “Or maybe somebody that maybe college isn’t for you and they want to make a good living, I’d recommend they get the training and go to the classes and then come underground.”

“There is a need out there right now for a lot of underground guys everywhere,” trainer Justin Wilbur added. “Well, you look at the price of metals. Gold’s up, silver’s up. … There is a big supply and demand, and the demand’s up for underground guys.”

Days after the Southeast students visited Kensington, students from Juneau — who attended Bell’s class in person, as opposed to students from Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere in Southeast who watched a live video stream and participated in the class remotely — visited the Hecla Greens Creek Mine. Several weeks after that, a few students from the Railbelt went to the Fort Knox Gold Mine near Fairbanks.

“Fort Knox gave us a really good tour and treated us well and talked to the students about what they could do to help them get started,” said Center for Mine Training director Mike Bell, shortly after four of his students visited the mine in Interior Alaska. Bell said Fort Knox officials had even reached out to a would-be intern to arrange summer housing for him after the visit.

In the class session after the Kensington mine tour, Greens Creek electrical superintendent Carl Tenney told the combined group of Juneau and Southeast students that mines are seeking trained workers because many of their employees — a sizable number of whom came, like Tapia and Wilbur, from careers in logging or other professions — are eventually going to get too old and retire from mining.

“What we are looking for as employers are young people who are aggressive,” Tenney said. “What I mean by aggressive is, you’re not going to know everything, but you want to. You’re not going to do everything right, but as I correct you, you’ll do it again until you do get it right. And it’s O.K. We know that’s the fee we pay to bring you up. But if we don’t … us old dogs, we might know everything, but we’re going to go bye-bye. And then what’s going to happen to the company? It’s yours, not ours. You guys are our future.”

UAS Provost Richard Caulfield said he has been heartened by the support he has seen for the Center for Mine Training.

“There’s such strong support in the Juneau community, and I think across Southeast Alaska, for training Alaskans to take these jobs,” Caulfield said.

Bell has worked with students and mine officials to help get internships and jobs for young adults who have completed the course and are continuing on with mining.

One of the assignments in this year’s “Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operations” class was to draft a cover letter and find out how to send it to the human resources department at a mine.

Mike Satre, a former executive director of the Council of Alaska Producers who is now manager of government and community relations at Hecla Greens Creek Mining Co., said there are four diesel mechanic interns at Greens Creek this summer from the UAS program.

“There are absolutely moving down the track that we established on the Pathway to Mining Careers,” said Satre.

The director position for the Center for Mine Training was set to expire without state money to replace the funding from Hecla Greens Creek, which contributed $300,000 as seed money for the program in 2011.

University of Alaska President Patrick Gamble told lawmakers in January that without the position, “The program will continue, but it’s not going to be the program we could make it if we have the right leadership.”

Juneau Rep. Cathy Muñoz made the director position a priority during this year’s legislative session. The third-term Republican took advantage of her seat on the House Finance Committee to successfully offer an amendment adding $90,000 in state funding for the job to the operating budget.

“Every year that I’ve been in office, I’ve done things to support the mining training program,” said Muñoz. “I really see the mining training center as, you know, a part of the university that needs our support. It’s an organization that I want to see continue to grow and do well.”

Gov. Sean Parnell has yet to sign the budget into law. Under state law, the governor of Alaska has the ability to veto certain items in the budget.

But Caulfield said he is “hopeful” that the increased funding will not be nixed by Parnell, who made a personal appearance at the media classroom nestled inside Egan Library during the first “Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operations” class of this year to speak to the high school students about mining and praise the UAS program.

“We’re here because we want to create a path of opportunity for you — not to hand you something, but to clear a path so you can go grasp something,” Parnell told the students at the time. “That’s why you’re in this class, I think, and that’s my hope for you, that you will posture yourselves as students for that very reason.”

Both Caulfield and Satre spoke favorably of Bell and the mine training program.

“I think it’s been a great success, and the majority of the credit is really due to the hard work, dedication and enthusiasm of Mike Bell,” said Satre. “I mean, it’s one thing for us to seed the program, but he is the one that developed the curriculum to work with Greens Creek, Kensington and other mining companies. … I think the kids, they see that and they’re ready to learn when they see enthusiasm like that.”


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