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As mining booms in Southeast, so does mine training program

Intro course at UAS grew in 2nd year; likely to expand in 3rd

Posted: May 18, 2013 - 2:25pm  |  Updated: May 18, 2013 - 11:08pm
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Mike Bell, director of the Center for Mine Training of the University of Alaska Southeast, watches computer monitors during a demonstration of the underground mine simulator earlier this year.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Mike Bell, director of the Center for Mine Training of the University of Alaska Southeast, watches computer monitors during a demonstration of the underground mine simulator earlier this year.

The mining industry in Southeast Alaska has taken off in recent years. And as mining has grown as a sector of the local, regional and state economy, the University of Alaska Southeast has embarked on a mission to meet the demand for new mine workers.

That’s where the Center for Mine Training comes in.

The UAS Center for Mine Training is a vocational education program created to teach students what they need to know in order to work in a mine, provide safety training and ultimately place young adults in the field.

Among the program’s offerings is an introductory course for high school students interested in mining.

In 2012, the first year in which the “Introduction to Mining Occupations” course was held, some 18 Juneau high school students completed the course, according to Center for Mine Training director and chief instructor Mike Bell.

“Out of those, 15 of those are either working at the mines or going to school and being supported by the mines,” Bell added.

This year, Bell said, 63 high school students from across Alaska completed the course — more than three times the number who did just a year earlier.

UAS Provost Richard Caulfield praised Bell for opening up the class to students statewide.

“It really took a lot of creative energy to put a course on like this statewide,” Caulfield said. “And it took a lot of networking with the industry.”

The introductory course for high school students was distributed this year via Alaska’s Learning Network, a coalition of Alaska school districts around the state. Students could attend remotely by watching a live video stream of classes or listening in. Those students were also able to ask questions and interact with classmates, staff and their instructor via a feature that resembles a Facebook Wall or Twitter feed.

Students from more than 20 schools around the state took the class this year, according to Bell.

Next year’s class is set to expand once again.

“Next year, we’re looking at probably 150 (students), but I have to cap it at some point, because getting them the jobs is the big deal,” said Bell.

At a time of state budget cuts and an increasingly precarious financial situation for the University of Alaska — President Patrick Gamble warned legislators earlier this year that mounting deferred maintenance needs will escalate out of control if the state does not allocate money to address them quickly — the Center for Mine Training is a program that the university, the state and industry groups all appear eager to support.

“Mine training is really central to the economy of Southeast Alaska, and it’s central to the university’s workforce development and community college mission,” said Caulfield. “So we’re excited to see it grow and develop.”

“Vocational education is a priority,” said Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau. “I am very impressed with the ability to get the training and then go to work in an entry-level job, making high wages and good benefits. And I think the University of Alaska Southeast has really responded … favorably, positively, to the opportunity, to the job opportunities that the mines provide.”

The cover story in this month’s issue of “Alaska Economic Trends,” a magazine put out by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, is on mining in Alaska. According to data cited in the article, the average annual wage for miners in the state is right around $100,000 — about twice as high as the average listed for private sector wages.

The data also showed the number of mining jobs in Alaska more than doubling from 2005 to 2012, going from 1,500 to about 3,500.

Industry representatives say the Center for Mine Training is providing a local workforce for Alaska’s mines.

“We’re excited about this class,” Coeur Alaska community relations manager Jan Trigg told a student during a class visit to Kensington Gold Mine, north of the Juneau road system. “It’s just opening a lot of doors for a lot of kids.”

“By golly, this is pretty successful for workforce development,” said Bell. “That’s the point. Nothing else matters. I mean, it’s nice to get people information and teach them things, but this is to get them out there and get them a shot at a job. And they’ll hold it or they won’t. That’s up to them. But if we can help them get past being a senior in high school, being 18 with no experience, and get a shot at getting a good job, that’s the deal.”

Bell’s teaching style for the introductory course this year was fairly lenient, something he suggested may change next year. Late work was often accepted, albeit marked down. Students in the Southeast cohort — those who took the class remotely, outside Juneau, as opposed to the Juneau students who attended in-person and the students from elsewhere in the state who took it online as well — did the best, scoring a 92.3 percent grade average.

But despite the relaxed approach to assignments and the high rate of student success, the twice-weekly “Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operations” course — which began in January and ended last month — was far from fluffy.

While Bell and guest speakers noted the advantages of a career in mining — good pay, good benefits, opportunities for advancement and steady employment — they did not shy away from the need for safety and the hazards associated with working in the environment of a mine and using heavy machinery, powerful chemicals and other potentially deadly tools as part of the job.

Occasionally gruesome safety videos and photographs of accidents were shown during class, with Bell and guest speakers rarely apologizing for their content. The need for safety, they argued, is something people looking at a career in mining have to understand.

At the mines, “you actually practice safety procedures,” Carl Tenney, electrical superintendent at Hecla Greens Creek Mining Co., advised the class after showing several photographs of electrical accidents and a video clip of a man electrocuting himself by touching a cable above a train.

Trigg and others at Kensington repeatedly stressed the importance of following safety procedures to students as well.

Despite the sometimes graphic material, the course seems to have won over some potential miners.

“I’m starting to look at it a lot more seriously than I did at first,” said Wrangell High School senior Joe Smith, who took this year’s introductory course remotely. “This class really opens up your mind to different kinds of things you can do in the mines.”

Craig High School student Will Brand said he hopes to go into the mining field as well. Asked when he became interested in mining, Brand replied, “Just this year, since this class opened up.”

The Center for Mine Training is supported in large part by a $300,000 donation made by Hecla Greens Creek Mining Co. to UAS in 2011. In fact, although other mines and mining companies have contributed to the program as well, the UAS website refers to the sequence of mine training that begins with Bell’s introductory course as the “Hecla Greens Creek Pathway to Mining Careers.”

“We also realized that we had to go outside of our existing folks and make sure that entry-level people were ready to come work for us,” explained Mike Satre, manager of government and community relations at Hecla Greens Creek. “When we looked at donating money to the mine training center … we wanted to make sure that we were — certainly a bit selfish — but we wanted to make sure we got a program that was going to fill our needs.”

The introductory course is only the first step for students wishing to pursue a career in mining. UAS also offers a one-year mine mechanic occupational endorsement program open to students who complete both the “Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operations” course and the Hecla Greens Creek Mine Academy, a summer workshop at which students complete Mine Safety and Health Administration training and job-shadow at Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island. A mine mechanic associate’s degree, which is a two-year program, is also offered.

The academy, which is being held early next month, is the second step in the Pathway to Mining Careers. Job-shadowing is the third, and selecting a program is the fourth.

The fifth and final step is getting a job — whether at Greens Creek, Kensington or any other mine.

“If we’re doing our job, we’re creating a career pathway,” said Caulfield.

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