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Fieldwork and mining

kljhA rigorous dose of mine or exploration work allows students to decide if the life is for them, and employers to assess future employees, says Mike Harris*

That fieldwork is essential to training geologists would seem a truism so universally accepted among geologists as to be unremarkable.  However, although it is accepted in conversation, it is not always at the point of financing it.

Mike Streule and Lorraine Craig (Soapbox, Geoscientist 25.1 February 2015) mention the sense of “being a ‘real’ geologist” that comes from seeing in the field what you have learned in a classroom.  They write, “Yes, it is expensive, and yes, it takes dedicated staff to make it happen, but it makes [successful] geoscience graduates more truly valuable in the workplace than many others”. 

Mining colleagues

Not being involved, I cannot properly comment on university funding or how universities structure their programmes, but I can imagine the difficulties.  My intention here is to address my mining industry colleagues, as we depend upon universities producing graduates with the basic skills we need; from there, we train them up.  Our highest priorities are the ability to observe and record field data, and then to interpret it usefully.

Graduate geologists must be able to recognise minerals, rocks, structure and geomorphology accurately and record them in ways useful to us.  Beyond that, they should be competent with the usual software packages, use imagery effectively, have a pragmatic understanding of the principles of geology, geophysics and geochemistry and know the basics about ore deposits.

But most valuable is a passion for being in the field, working on or looking for ore.  They must be tough in the field, and enjoy it – and not be worried about less than balmy conditions - just appreciating the opportunity of being there.  They must be able to get along with a range of people, often very different from themselves, and to cope with relatively high levels of responsibility early on.

Conditions v drawbacks

Some recent articles have expressed concerns over how the extractive industries can attract graduates if employment involves being in the field much of the time and/or posted abroad to difficult locations – my reply is that those who see these conditions as drawbacks are not the type of people we are after.

Although good university field training instils basic field skills, attracting the best to mining or exploration involves giving students an opportunity to see what our business is about – a very good way being to spend a summer working at a mine or exploration project.  This is considerably more difficult and costly to organise than university field-trips, as it may involve work visas, often tedious to obtain, is expensive, and can be disruptive to small teams. 

However, the payback can be high.  Many mining/exploration geologists, myself included, were hooked on the industry through summer jobs.  A rigorous dose of mine/exploration work will allow students to decide if such a life is for them and employers to assess if they think the students will make good future employees.  The trick, especially in the current restricted financial environment, is to be highly selective about who is chosen.

* Dr Michael O Harris CGeol works for RTZ