Geologic Column: Assessing energy and mining workforce needs

by Lisa A. Rossbacher
Monday, August 5, 2013

Lisa A. Rossbacher Courtesy of Lisa A. Rossbacher

In his 1971 book, “Encounters with the Archdruid,” John McPhee quoted Charles Park, an economic geologist who worked at the U.S. Geological Survey and then Stanford University, who said, “People seldom stop to think that all these things — planes in the air, cars on the road, Sierra Club cups — once, somewhere, were rock. Our whole economy — our way of doing things, most of what we have, even our culture — rests on these things.” Although McPhee’s emphasis was on the balance between environmental protection and our societal need for raw materials, the book highlighted the fundamental importance of energy exploration and mining, an idea that implies still another significant message: Our society needs scientists, engineers and skilled laborers who can locate and extract raw materials and energy sources from the rocks beneath our feet in order to power our economy and our way of life.

For many years, public attention has focused on the availability of energy and mineral resources, from diminishing petroleum reserves to limited helium supplies and declining stocks of silver. Recently, however, it seems that the limiting factor on obtaining resources that support society may not be the supplies of the resources themselves, but of people qualified to locate and mine them.

Understanding the workforce trends in the energy and mining industries has been difficult, however, because relevant employment data are so diffuse. Professional societies track some of the information. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) regularly summarizes salary data while the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration focuses on education and careers. The American Geosciences Institute (AGI), publisher of EARTH, tracks a variety of workforce metrics and has an initiative to help prepare the future workforce. While the data these organizations provide help paint a larger picture, none of them individually offers a comprehensive overview.

To provide a more complete synopsis of challenges in staffing the energy and mining industries, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has recently compiled a broad assessment of workforce supply and demand. The report, “Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Energy and Mining Industries: A Call to Action,” which can be accessed through the NAS website, collated data from a variety of sources in the federal government, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Information from organizations such as AGI and AAPG was used to complement the federal data.

Here are a few of the conclusions from the report:

  • Attracting more young people, especially from underrepresented groups such as minorities and women, into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields will be critical for an energy- and materials-secure future. Multiple routes to careers in these fields are available, including through community colleges and partnerships between two- and four-year institutions.
  • Partnerships among industry, government and all levels of education will produce synergies that benefit everyone and bolster the future of energy and mining industries in the U.S.
  • Students who are interested and continue in STEM fields are sometimes discouraged from the energy and mining fields because of negative perceptions associated with them, such as pollution and other environmental problems. A public relations campaign to correct misperceptions is recommended.
  • As in many fields, the demographics of the oil and gas industry workforce are changing, with an overall bimodal distribution between new workers and those who are about to retire. Finding strong leadership during the transition between new and old will be a challenge.
  • More and better data about the energy and mining workforce are needed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics should work with industry and education to track rapid changes in job opportunities, workforce needs, and job titles and characteristics.

In “Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy” (2012), Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard observed that “economies are about transforming raw materials into what we perceive as goods and services.” And raw materials often come from rock. The authors equate the development of human culture with the development of energy technology, and thus with basic geology.

In this way of thinking, civilization depends on geology, much as Charles Park pointed out more than four decades ago. As a society, we should be concerned about the availability of those resources. But we should be equally concerned — if not more so — about the supply of a prepared workforce that can find and extract them. Collecting and synthesizing data, as in the new NAS report, is a great first step to identify workforce needs and recommend solutions. The next step is to follow through on these recommendations. In the meantime, the good news is that job outlook appears promising for earth scientists who want to power civilization.

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