Underground mining jobs go begging

Strapped for skilled workers to mine underground gold deposits, northern Nevada companies are casting a wide net.

Queenstake Resources Ltd.

recruits in Midwestern industrial towns hoping that good paychecks will draw blue-collar workers westward and underground at its mine north of Elko.

The operators of the Turquoise Ridge Mine north ofWinnemucca are investing big dollars like $60,000 a head in training young workers from nearby ranching communities to become underground miners.

And Newmont Mining, the state's biggest gold company, is part of a group of miners talking with Great Basin Community College in Elko about a program to train underground miners.

While surface mines with their gigantic pits are the best-known face of gold mining in Nevada, underground mines account for about 22 percent of the state's production.

The importance of underground operations is likely to grow as easy-to-reach deposits close to the surface are mined out and mining companies need to go deeper, says Alan Coyner, administrator of the Nevada Division of Minerals.

But mining companies, who have enough troubles finding workers for surface mines, struggle all the more when they're hiring for underground operations.

Says Mary Korpi, an Elko-based spokeswoman for Newmont: "With the job market the way it is, it's very difficult to find underground miners." And even though newcomers can earn $40,000 a year underground experienced hands can earn $60,000 or more applicants don't flock to mining companies.

"It's dark.

It's confining.

And it's extremely hard work," says Russ Fields, president of the Nevada Mining Association.

When the gold industry slumped about five years ago, mines trimmed their workforces and much of the Nevada's experienced underground mining workforce left the state.

That means that Newmont has recruited regionally in Wyoming, Idaho, and New Mexico, for instance to fill 120 vacancies in its Nevada underground operations this year.

Queenstake Resources goes even farther afield with its recruiting in the Midwest.

Brent Chamberlain, human relations manager at the Jerritt Canyon mine 50 miles north of Elko, says the Midwest recruiting program is so fresh it's difficult to gauge results.

Early on, he says, the company encountered some resistance from potential Midwestern recruits who felt uncomfortable with the lifestyle and culture of northeastern Nevada.

Others had trouble finding housing in the area.

"It's not an ideal solution," Chamberlain says.

But he says Queenstake Resources believes that recruitment and training of previously inexperienced workers is likely to be its best course as shortages of skilled labor persist.

Newmont, too, agrees with the need to boost training efforts.

It recently won $75,000 in funding from the state Commission on Economic Development to begin a training program for 75 underground miners.Newmont will put another $320,000 into the program.

"We are hiring a lot of people who have not worked in mining," says Korpi.

Probably the most ambitious training program in the Nevada mining industry is operated at the Turquoise Ridge mine, a underground mine owned by Placer Dome Inc.

and Newmont about 40 miles northeast of Winnemucca.

The first class of 14 students completed a 12-week, 40-hour-a-week academy that prepared them to work underground.

They first learned to operate the specialized underground mining equipment on the surface.

Then they worked within the confines of a trench.

Finally, they began working underground.

The first academy class, chosen from about 70 applicants, included young workers with experience in fields ranging from fast food to ranching.

But the common elements were two, says John Mansanti, general manager of the mine.

First, the students had shown that they had a good work ethic.

"We are generating careers for people," Mansanti says."We aren't teaching people how to work."

Second, the newcomers come from rural Nevada and wanted to continue living in an area that outsiders sometimes find daunting.

The students also needed to be bright.

"You've got to learn to read the rock," says Mansanti."You have to understand it.

There are a lot of nuances to it."

Turquoise Ridge executives expect to continue training about eight workers at a time.

They don't want to move more quickly because they want their workforce of about 130 underground miners to be dominated by experienced hands rather than rookies.

But the mine's executives are committed to an ongoing training program rather than looking to simply woo miners away from other companies.

"We felt,"Mansanti says,"that we needed to get some new talent into the system."


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