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Labor shortages plague Elko businesses

Rob Sabo

Sharon Horn, director of customer service for Ram-Enterprises in Elko, says it’s easy to find a willing hand to quickly fill a vacant position within Ram for temporary contract work.

The problem: Ram, like most mining service providers and mining companies in Elko County, doesn’t need another body with a pulse. Horn says companies like hers that provide critical repair work to the areas mines require highly skilled labor mechanics, millwrights, construction workers and other well-trained craftsmen. However, the pool of trained and available labor has become mighty shallow throughout northeastern Nevada.

“It is definitely a challenge,” Horn says. “We get hundreds of applications every week, but we are not looking for more applicants; we are looking for people with a good work ethic who believe in becoming skilled craftsmen.”

It’s a theme repeated throughout Elko County businesses.

As Elko County mines expanded operations in recent years years, they’ve grabbed the lion’s share of skilled labor in northeastern Nevada. Top-level mechanics, electrical and systems engineers, operators and a host of other tradesmen already are employed and enjoying exceptionally high wages offered by hard rock mining outfits or by companies that serve the mining industry.

And that’s made it difficult for many companies to expand their workforces with qualified staff to meet the demands of their clients.

Ben Reeves of Elko Wire Rope and Mining Supply says his company employs eight and would hire another person if it found the right candidate. The company receives between five and 10 applications per month, but Elko Wire Rope is selective because of the cohesion required for a small team.

Someone with a background in mining would be an ideal fit, Reeves says. Trouble is, most people that fit that profile already are working somewhere. Most of the job applications Elko Wire Rope receives are from people who are newcomers to town and are greenhorns to the mining industry.

The problem with developing a workforce, Ram’s Horn says, is that the skills that make someone a valuable employee to Ram also make that person valuable to the areas mining companies a paradox that puts Elko-based companies in the unenviable position of competing for labor with their best customers.

Chuck Faul, operations manager for Cummins Rocky Mountain in Elko, says that the mines without question bring the most business to his shop.

Faul could hire several more trained diesel mechanics to do field repair work, but he’s careful not to recruit mechanics from the mining companies. It helps that most mine-site diesel mechanics often lack the highly technical skills required to repair all facets of Cummings power generation engines, Faul notes.

“We do compete for talent,” he says, “But oftentimes (their mechanics) only can look at the processes of the equipment.”

Horn says Ram employs primarily millwrights and process mechanics to repair equipment used at regional mines. The company struggles even more to find skilled vulcanizers who can repair the many different types of conveyer systems used at mine sites.

Many Elko companies also are forced to pay wages way above those typically found in rural areas so that they don’t loose key employees to the mines. The luxury of working in town also is a key tool used in retention, Horn says.

The Ram-Enterprises employees that perform field repairs usually pull long shifts at regional mine sites, she says, but they do have the benefit of moving around from site to site rather than turning shifts at the same site year after year. The job also stays fresh, Horn says, because the types of repairs they perform constantly shift.

“Our guys see all kinds of different mine sites and different ways customers do things. Oftentimes they are able to solve a problem for one customer and replicate that solution because they have seen so many different mining plans and environments.”

Ram often needs to ramp up it workforce quickly when regional mines perform routine maintenance shutdowns. Mining companies often look to Ram to provide for contract labor, and it’s then that the company is most pressed to fill positions.

What’s often available on short notice, she says, is usually a mix of unskilled labor and a handful of people who lack the motivation to learn and excel at a craft, or those who aren’t too careful around heavy equipment and dangerous tools.

“We can teach someone a craft, but we can’t teach work ethic either you have got it or you don’t,” she says.

Greg Martin, broker with Coldwell Banker Algerio Q-Team Realty and a resident of Elko since 1965, says the influx of mining jobs has raised the overall skills and educational level of the town. Long gone are the days of the salty old miners headed for the hills with pickaxe and shovel. Today’s mine site workers, Martin says, are among the most educated people in the community.

“So much has changed with the mining industry in the last 20 years,” he says. “Today, they are very highly trained, highly skilled technical people, from hydrologists to any kind of engineering degree you can think of. They all are being hired by the mining industry.”

SIDEBAR

GBC readies Elko’s future tradesmen

Great Basin College is doing its part to help fill shortages in Elko’s skilled labor market.

GBC’s career and technical education programs include instruction in electrical and diesel repair, mine site mill maintenance and welding technology. It also has an instrumentation technology program that culminates in a bachelor’s degree, says John Rice, the school’s chief development officer.

Great Basin’s long-running Maintenance Training Cooperative program, developed through a consortium of local business partners, includes Newmont Mining Corp and Barrick Gold. This year, 120 scholarships were awarded to Elko residents to take the accelerated 48-week program.

Rice says Great Basin also is in the midst of a three-year $1.2 million financial commitment from Barrick that has allowed the college to expand the number of sections offered in its electrical program and boosted the number of MTC scholarships offered. GBC also has used a portion of the funding to revamp a wing of dormitories in order to house more students.


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