Mining Special Section
What Does It Mean to Mine?
Mines employ a range of workers to start and maintain operations
By Bruno J. Navarro

t takes a team of highly-trained, skilled individuals to keep a mine running. From heavy machinery operators moving massive amounts of earth to core sampling specialists who help determine an area’s mineral and chemical makeup, a mine requires professionals performing a variety of duties—including some unexpected ones.

Rochelle Lindley, community and government affairs manager at Coeur Alaska, says that the exact composition of jobs can change from site to site.

Mill Roof
Coeur Alaska
“Every mine site is different, and therefore core positions will vary depending on numerous characteristics including the specific type of mining being done, the ore being processed, the logistics of the mine site, and the environment in which the mine is located,” she says.

Coeur Alaska’s Kensington Mine is an underground, hard rock gold mine located off the road system approximately 45 miles northwest of Juneau. The mine, Lindley says, has critical job classifications that include health and safety, operations, environmental, technical services, and administration.

At Kensington Mine, core positions include safety coordinators, environmental coordinators, underground miners, diesel mechanics, water treatment plant operators, mill operators, millwrights, accountants, geologists, mine engineers, warehouse technicians, procurement specialists, surface operators, assay technicians, electricians, management, and administration. Lindley adds that “each position in every department plays a pivotal role in facilitating mine production.”

Career Opportunities
Opportunities for career advancement vary according to position, but all hourly roles—including miners, maintenance workers, electricians, and technicians—follow a progression from supervisor, foreman, to manager. Salaried personnel also have opportunities for career growth with junior, senior, and management level roles for accounting, engineering, geology, and human resources departments, to name a few.

“Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine believes that its most valuable resource is its people and is committed to developing talent and promoting from within,” Lindley says, noting that more than 50 percent of the general workforce and 70 percent of the management team has worked at Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine for at least five years.

Developing a Local Workforce
Lindley says that the Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine “is committed to hiring a diverse workforce, which includes local and Alaska Native hire.” The company has an agreement in place with three local Alaska Native corporations to encourage employment from their shareholders, with opportunities for both contractors and subcontractors.
Environmental department staff perform regularly scheduled water quality monitoring of Johnson Creek.

Coeur Alaska

Environmental men at work
Environmental department staff perform regularly scheduled water quality monitoring of Johnson Creek.

Coeur Alaska

Its human resources department works with Alaska Native partner organizations to share recruitment opportunities. “Over 50 percent of the total workforce are Alaska residents, and over 30 percent reside in Juneau,” Lindley says.

Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine partners with the University of Alaska’s Mining and Petroleum Training Services (MAPTS) to provide residents with the opportunity to complete a six-week training program. Lindley says that participants who successfully complete the program and meet all HR requirements will qualify to begin a full-time position as either an underground miner or maintenance technician.

Lindley says that most jobs are year-round positions, but some seasonal opportunities exist as well, such as seasonal equipment operators and “seasonal marine mammal observers to count and record mammals during the twice-a-day employee boat commute.”

Welcoming Newcomers
Phil Hetle, general manager at AKHIRE, an Anchorage-based employment agency that also operates in Juneau, says that there are career opportunities for people who are new to the industry.

“Most of the people I hire have not worked in a mine before, so there’s a federal training program,” he says. “We help people get through that.”

Hetle adds that it typically takes up to four days to complete the necessary training, some of which is mandated by the US Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration to ensure the safety of mine workers.

Hetle says that most of the people who begin the training will complete it and move on to potentially lucrative jobs at one of Alaska’s various mining sites. “Most of them stick it out. It’s my job to find people that will,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve had them quit before, I just can’t think of any. If they’re willing to do the training, typically they’re pretty committed.”

While mines operate year-round, construction workers are busier from spring to the early fall, making those types of jobs more common, Hetle says. “You will find journeymen mechanics who are taking a temporary job, and then there’s other people who have spent a career in a mine or rock quarry.”

Hetle, who says he has hired about twenty people in the past year for mine-specific jobs, estimates that workers are evenly split between the two types of tenures.

But mines need other types of workers, too.

“Some of what we do is in the mines, but we tend to be a contractor supplier,” Hetle says. “We provide staff on-site at the mine, and most of our people are what I would call mechanical-style people.”

Hetle says that workers are also needed for a couple of different mechanical groupings—including those who operate vehicles, such as bulldozers, and on-site machinery, such as a rock crusher or conveyor.

“Every mine site is different, and therefore core positions will vary depending on numerous characteristics including specific type of mining being done, the ore being processed, the logistics of the mine site, and the environment in which the mine is located.”
Rochelle Lindley, Community and Government Affairs Manager, Coeur Alaska
Electricians, mechanics, welders, and general contractors are all in demand, not necessarily for a mine itself but perhaps for the temporary camps that need to be built to house mine workers and provide support services.

“If I had someone who’d done the same job, that would be amazing,” Hetle says, though he adds that it’s not common. What’s important, he adds, is that a prospective employee has the correct aptitude for mine site work. Beyond that, much of the specific knowledge can be taught.

“We’ll bring people in and train them on the ins and outs of what they do. As long as they have some of those other pieces, then we can train them for the next step,” Hetle says. As to the most attractive qualification for mining jobs, Hetle says this: “Anyone who has experience in a mine… because the mine experience is something all its own.”

Underground miner sprays down the rock to inspect the surface.

Coeur Alaska

Underground miner
Underground miner sprays down the rock to inspect the surface.

Coeur Alaska

“Mines need a wide variety of jobs that you would not normally think of because most of the time they’re remote. ”
Deantha Skibinski, Executive Director, Alaska Miners Association
Potentially Lucrative Prospects
The mining industry accounts for some of Alaska’s highest-paying jobs, with an estimated annual wage of $115,320—more than twice the state average for all sectors of the economy.

In all, the total payroll for jobs directly and indirectly linked to the mining industry hit $890 million in 2020, according to a report published in February 2021 by the Alaska Miners Association.

Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the AMA, says that jobs at mining sites often exist outside the scope of what is commonly associated with the exploration and extraction industry.

“Mines need a wide variety of jobs that you would not normally think of because most of the time they’re remote,” she says. “If you’re in the middle of nowhere, you have to build a camp. And you’ll need the IT guy to keep all the communications going.”

While mining operations near metropolitan areas such as Juneau or Fairbanks might be able to rely on the services they provide, other operations need to set up what amounts to a small city. That includes chefs, medical personnel, diesel mechanics, and other professions not generally found in the Alaska wilderness. “You don’t have urgent care down the street and can’t take your car to Jiffy Lube,” Skibinski adds.

Yet some high-demand jobs are also needed elsewhere. Diesel mechanics, for instance, are useful across a variety of sectors. “We train them, and they’re stolen away by the construction or oil industry,” Skibinski says. “They’re highly sought-after.” A wealth of commercial drivers’ training programs across the state help train haul truck drivers, too, she adds.

And the demand for qualified workers remains steady.

“For our large mining operations in Alaska, they operate 24/7, 365 days a year—so those jobs are very stable, year-round, and very full-time,” Skibinski says.

“Meanwhile exploration projects at placer mining operations occur only in the summertime, from break-up to freeze-up,” she says, indicating the period from March or late April (early to mid-May in some areas) to September or October.

Training Key
For some technical and vocational careers, university programs help provide students with the necessary education, many of them via degree-seeking programs. UAS in Juneau is one such institution, Skibinski says, adding that they also provide high-school students with exposure to a variety of mining careers.

“You could end up with a full-time job making $70,000 to $80,000 a year right out of college,” Skibinski explains, adding that mining companies are interested in developing talent among local residents. To that end, facilities like the Delta Mine Training Center in Delta Junction help provide hands-on experience. Training programs such as Rural Reach provide similar opportunities for locals, while others include the Alaska Technical Center in Kotzebue, which benefits from a partnership with NANA and Teck Resources’ Red Dog Mine about 80 miles away, and EXCEL Alaska, which works closely with Donlin Gold to prepare residents for potential careers within the region.

“As long as those qualified people are there, that’s the first place they go to hire,” Skibinski says.

Skibinski notes that Donlin Gold embarked on a drilling and exploration project last summer, working with twenty communities in the region to find a reliable workforce.

“Just like Red Dog, they want to be able to hire from the area,” Skibinski says. “People [who] already want to live in Alaska.”

And for state residents, there is the prospect of generational employment.

“Anecdotally, there are lots and lots of people who started as a geologist right out of college or a haul truck driver right out of a training program and advanced so much in their training and abilities that they might have a child who follows in their footsteps,” she says, citing one family who has been working at the Usibelli Coal Mine near the town of Healy for three generations.

“I think that for someone who is just starting out at a mine, there’s tons of opportunity for advancement, and I think that there’s always an opportunity because there’s such a diversity of work,” she says. “There’s a lot more opportunity to grow into a position that a lot of other types of operations don’t have.”