Mining course a golden opportunity

Entry level mine training program at UAS has local focus

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2007

If all goes well, 18 men hoping to work in Juneau area mines will walk out of training next month and into steady high-paying jobs.

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"Without a doubt, it is why we took this class," Russ Smith, mining labor student, said.

An inaugural five-week Entry Level Mining Training Program is designed to get local would-be miners experience and certification in skills that permit them to work underground.

The program is underway at the University of Alaska Southeast Vocational Training School in Juneau.

Smith, a construction worker who's been applying to mining jobs for the past two years, said he took the new course for its access to the mining industry. Two weeks into the course he has one interview with Greens Creek Mining Co. under his belt.

"They flew in and interviewed us all," Smith said.

Kensington gold mine operators will interview the same bunch soon, said Dennis Steppy, directory of the University of Alaska Mining and Petroleum Training Service.

"It's our goal to train local folks for local jobs," he said.

Wednesday morning's primary lesson was hazardous materials identification and handling. It's the big money certificate, and no one works underground without one.

"Murphy's Law applies," Sam Reeves, instructor with the program, said. "It's in your best interest to know what you're working with before it winds up on you."

Hazard training is essential to receive a federal certificate allowing any miner to work underground. Beyond the certification process lies entry-level training.

"It's 40-hours of training we (mines) don't have to do," Darren Case, industry safety instructor, said.

The course extends four weeks beyond hazard training and covers all required topics.

The training is free to those who qualify and is offered through Juneau Job Service. The program is supported with a mix of public and private money.

The possibility of future mine training in Juneau depends largely on the success of the first class and balance in the labor market.

Steppy said another training session would not begin before 75 percent of the current class is employed in mining, and the industry asks for more training.

The earliest would be February, he said.

Though only 50 percent of all miners will eventually work underground, Steppy said every trainee would be ready to work underground in mine operations statewide.

Robert Johnson, a print foreman at the Juneau Empire, is counting on Steppy's optimism. He said a family member has been pestering him to get work at the Kensington Mine, about 45 miles north of downtown.

"I'm following his footsteps to get a job," he said. "They told me to the get certifications and papers just to apply."

The bulk of the training started Thursday, with a hands-on underground experience with five major groups of equipment they could face on the job. Eighty percent of the course is hands-on.

"They'll get seat time," Steppy said.

Clayton Walker, Greens Creek general manager, said the new training program is good for the entire industry and not just Juneau.

Greens Creek multimetal mine on Admiralty Island has five or six jobs open and Clayton said the program works out well because the company prefers to hire locally.

"For us it's a great opportunity," he said. "Where we do have open positions these guys have a leg up."

Three weeks of "underground" training sit between Bret Russell and any mining job. He hopes to begin his mining career by working "backfill," or filling the mine back in, at Greens Creek.

"It's where they need us," he said.

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