On the surface, Nevada’s mining industry appears to be on solid ground. In 2018, the Silver State accounted for about 77% of the gold and 28% of the silver mined in the U.S., according to the Nevada Mining Association. Last year, the state ranked first in non-fossil fuel mineral production at 11% of the country’s total with a value of $9.14 billion, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The industry, however, is struggling to mine a specific element that is vital to its success: new workers. In Nevada, about 15,000 people are employed by the state’s mining sector. NVMA President Tyre Gray said that puts the industry “about 500 jobs under where it should be” — and that’s been the case for years. The need for more miners is only growing as the U.S. looks to secure the domestic supply chain for rare earth elements and other important minerals in electric car batteries and renewable energy such as lithium, Gray said. “There’s a need to fill the jobs that we currently have open, and there’s going to be a need to fill jobs that are going to be created due to increased demands in the mining sector,” Gray said. To that end, Gray pointed to the proposed lithium mine project at Thacker Pass in rural Northern Nevada, located in Humboldt County near Orovada, roughly 50 miles north-northwest of Winnemucca.
Atop a long-dormant volcano in Northern Nevada, the giant pit would serve as the first new large-scale lithium mine in the U.S. in more than a decade. The mine, proposed to be constructed on leased federal lands, could help address the near total reliance by the U.S. on foreign sources of lithium, Gray said. That is, if the worker shortage is also addressed. “They’re going to need construction workers in order to develop their mine, but then they’re going to need about 400 full-time employees to run the mine,” he said. “Where are they going to get those 400 from when we already have a shortage of 500 people?” Pausing, he succinctly added: “We need workers.”
Tyre Gray, president of the Nevada Mining Association, says Nevada’s mining industry remains short “about 500 jobs.” Courtesy Photo
Meanwhile, economic impacts of the workforce shortage as a whole are vast. “There’s $50 million of economic activity that we’re missing out on just by having those 500 jobs open,” he added. “Filling those jobs also increases tax revenue, not only because of the people who are making money, but also because a mine, in theory, would be more profitable if you could fill that last shift. Some mines would rather have three shifts, but they’re only able to run two shifts.” ATTRACTING TALENT The workforce woes aren’t unique to Nevada. Mining and geological engineering employment is estimated to grow only 4% from 2019-2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As demand keeps rising for critical minerals, there are fewer skilled employees to fill job openings. All the while, like many employees in the U.S., miners have used the pandemic to reassess their careers. Some have pivoted to new professions while others have retired completely. Just ask Nevada Gold Mines, a joint venture between mining giants Barrick Gold and Newmont that employs more than 7,000 people across the Silver State, ranging from drillers to data scientists. “As with many other industries currently, we are seeing evidence of workforce shortages,” a representative for Nevada Gold Mines wrote in a statement provided to the NNBW. “We are lucky to be experiencing unprecedented growth in our business. However, this also adds the challenge from a workforce perspective. “We believe the immediate reason behind this has been the pandemic and the resulting cultural change happening in the U.S. After the disruption caused by the pandemic to all aspects of people’s lives, like all other companies in the U.S., we are seeing some of our workforce relooking at their life choices and choosing to make a change.” This is despite jobs in the industry paying well. In Nevada, the median annual salary of an underground mining machine operator and extraction worker is $52,400. It nearly doubles for mining and geological engineers ($93,800), a workforce segment that makes upwards of $156,000 a year, according to May 2020 figures from BLS. Still, young people aren’t entering the industry at a sustainable rate, officials say. The median age of workers in the mining, oil and gas sector is roughly 43, and about 20% of the workforce is over 55, according to the BLS. Adding to the challenge of luring new talent into the sector, Nevada’s mines are carved out in remote areas of the state. “Attracting individuals to live and work in the rural communities … is a challenge,” according to the Nevada Gold Mines statement. Considering that, Gray said NVMA and mining operators are increasing efforts to recruit and develop a workforce in the state’s urban centers like Las Vegas and Reno. All the while, he said NVMA is working to prepare mining cities like Elko, Winnemucca and Ely for what it may look like to have more people, particularly those of diverse backgrounds, coming into their communities to live and work. “Being able to pull from our urban areas is important,” Gray said. “It helps us to diversify the industry geographically. And, historically speaking, our rural communities are not as diverse as our urban communities, so if we’re actually recruiting more in those communities, hopefully, we’ll see an increase in diversification.” A PERCEPTION ISSUE Many of the mining industry’s challenges — workforce or otherwise — stem from a perception issue, Gray said. Some people simply think of dirt and soot-covered miners working in dangerous conditions, using outdated machinery puffing black clouds of smoke. “Unfortunately, a lot of the time, people still view the industry as the 1860s industry or even the 1960s industry,” Gray said. “When, truly, we are really at the cutting-edge of technological advancements. We’re using the most advanced, the most available technologies in order to excavate material in the safest way.” Tech has changed historical mining practices, from virtual reality mapping of ore bodies to electric vehicles and autonomous fleets to increased employee safety and mine site productivity. Mining operators are also starting to run their operations on solar power and use closed-loop systems to limit water usage. “Yes, we admit, we do move a lot of water, but we use very little water,” Gray said. “Usually less than 5% of the water that we move do we actually use.” Mining’s embrace of tech and eco-friendly practices is something the industry is working to educate the public about. After all, Gray said the stigma of mining workers “just killing the earth” needs to be corrected, especially with critical minerals so essential in the transition to renewables and environmentally sustainable technology. “We have to understand,” Gray said, “as we want this green technology and future, there has to be an understanding that mining is the first link in that. And without mining, we don’t get what we want — we don’t get solar panels, we don’t get electric vehicles.”