FAIRBANKS - Mining companies told state lawmakers gathered for a conference on the future of resource development in the Interior that too few qualified workers is putting a strain on the industry.
Members of the House and Senate resource committees gathered in Fairbanks on Monday to gauge the health of the mining industry and its potential to improve the region's modest 2 percent growth rate.
"The Interior is the state's mining district and workforce development is a big issue to the industry," said North Pole Republican John Coghill.
The mining industry has a $1.6 billion annual impact on the state and provides $22 million in taxes to the state and local municipalities. With the price of gold at $443 an ounce, exploration for new mineral deposits in the Interior is expected to increase.
The mineral industry spent nearly $70 million in exploration across the state in 2004, said Bob Loeffler, director of the Alaska Department Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water.
New exploration means the potential for increases to 2,500 full-time workers currently employed by the industry. Lawmakers said Monday they want to ensure those job opportunities go to Alaskans.
Coghill, who is House majority leader, said mining companies have been proactive in their efforts to train and hire Alaskans, but more work is required to meet industry demands.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks set up the applied mining technology certificate program in response to the shortage of trained mining workers, said UAF spokeswoman Carla Browning.
The Delta Mine Training Program put on by the Tanana Valley Campus and the Delta/Greely School District is another state-funded effort to supply trained workers for the industry.
Officials from the Fort Knox Mine and Teck-Pogo told lawmakers those programs have provided a good start, but the industry needs more trained workers to sustain growth.
The Fort Knox gold mine employs 425 people full time and pays $36 million in annual wages. "We need everyone of those employees," said John Wild, the mine's general manager.
The open-pit mine near Fairbanks, which had a production of 340,000 ounces of gold in 2004, is expected to produce through 2011.
Karl Hannerman with Teck-Pogo said when the gold mine goes into production next year, it's expected to employ 230 people full time and have a payroll of about $20 million.
The Teck-Pogo mine, 40 miles northeast of Delta Junction, is expected to have gold reserves of more than 3 million ounces and produce up to 500,000 ounces a year for the next decade.
The mine has put together its own training program for entry-level employees that has succeeded in having an 85 percent Alaskan-hire rate.
Teck-Pogo is actively looking to expand its operations in the area in an effort to increase the life of the mine.
"Geologically the area is very interesting," Hannerman said. "It's encouraging enough for us to try to find additional deposits, but it's too early to know if we'll be successful."
There are 250,000 acres under mineral claim stakes in the state with exploration at several sites in the Interior, including an announcement last week by the Nevada Star Resource Corporation to explore for gold 170 miles south of Fairbanks in the Alaska Range.
Lawmakers said that exploration will result in more jobs for Alaskans if they have the required skills.
"We need to train more people in operation and maintenance for mines and pipelines," said Kenai Republican Sen. Tom Wagoner, chair of the Senate resources committee. "That's where we get the long-term, good paying jobs."