Developing People
In-house engineers at Alaska’s mines
By Sarah Reynolds Westin

very stage of a mine’s lifecycle is impacted by engineering. As a result, companies that own and manage mines often employ teams of technical services employees, which include in-house engineers to design, maintain, and improve essential infrastructure.

“Our technical team is quite small—about ten people,” says Stephen Ball, general manager at Coeur Alaska’s Kensington Mine, “but that is great for young engineers coming into the field. They get lots of mine site opportunities and aren’t pigeonholed.”

At most mines, the work of in-house engineers follows the mine’s lifecycle and, accordingly, divides into three areas: short-range, mid-range, and long-range planning. While planning falls under the scope of a mine engineer’s duties, everyone on the mining company’s technical services team contributes their expertise for the mine site’s success.

Short-range planning tends to study the long-range plan to figure out where the mine is right now in relation to it. These engineers determine where the mine site needs to be in the next two or three weeks to stay on schedule, adjusting operations to slow things down or speed them up.

Mid-range planning often involves supervising staff because these engineers are reviewing and coordinating the other planners’ designs. People doing mid-range planning often develop a well-rounded approach to mining, which helps them become better engineers and leaders and grooms them for certain positions in the company.

Long-range planning doesn’t usually offer the same mobility as mid-range planning because engineers in this role are looking at the mine’s future from one year out until final closure. They track costs, efficiencies, what-ifs, and successes. They evaluate what the mine can do better and what it could—or should—go after. These findings are integrated into mine sites’ official land statements, which go into technical reports and influence other areas. These engineers might even work on more esoteric projects—sky’s-the-limit possibilities that the mine might not actually build. However, this work is valuable because it informs processes and procedures that allow mines to increase efficiency and, thereby, become more successful.

In all instances, once ore has been identified and quantified, owners of the resource move to permit and plan operations and production. The short-, mid-, and long-range planners evaluate economic and environmental approaches, design pits, and estimate extraction rates based on the geology. Their plans account for time frames from as short as one week to five years. To implement these plans, drill and blast engineers help make the ore accessible, and project engineers assist with permit compliance and infrastructure needs.

Experts Working Together
At some mining companies, technical services teams are divided into two groups: project engineers and mine engineers. Other mining companies blend both together. Either way, the results are similar. Project engineers design and maintain capital and operations projects, such as incorporating fact-based decision-making, expanding waste rock storage sites, adding booster sites for capacity, and managing risks. Mine engineers serve as short-, mid-, and long-range planners as well as drill and blast experts.

Technical services teams also include mechanical engineers. Other disciplines may also have full-time representation in mining companies, including civil, metallurgical, and electrical engineers. Although environmental scientists and geologists are not engineers, those positions are regularly staffed as well. Surveyors are often on the teams, too, since they offer engineers and applied scientists a different perspective, which helps everyone make better decisions. A solution might look good on paper, but ground conditions complicate or prevent it from being feasible. With these experts working together, technical services teams provide many types of designs and processes.

“Water management is a big factor and includes mechanical engineering: piping, pumping, all that sort of stuff,” says Tyler Bruce, project director with Kinross Gold, who oversees the in-house engineers developing the Manh Choh mine near Tok. “Every mine also needs power 24/7, which involves electrical engineering. But not only do we need the lights on, we need to use power in an efficient way—which is one small part of our environmental awareness.”

Bruce says Kinross Gold aims to go beyond mere compliance with permits. “We must use the land with integrity. Our engineers help there too. On top of all that, the projects each have day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-to-year aspects. Our in-house engineers design those solutions as well,” he says.

The technical services team at Kensington Mine is a great place for engineers early in their careers to gain experience in the mining field.
The technical services team at Kensington Mine is a great place for engineers early in their careers to gain experience in the mining field.

Coeur Alaska

Outside Perspective
To supplement in-house engineers’ efforts, companies sometimes contract with engineering consultants.

“Having engineers on-hand lets us improve our processes, operations, and production,” says Bruce. “Consultants serve a necessary role, but we just grab them when we need them.”

Companies generally bring on consultants in two scenarios. First, if the mine needs specialized engineers with disciplines involving permitting, environmental concerns, and air or noise pollution to provide reviews or designs for work in areas out of the technical services team’s scope. Second, expansion projects often mandate that mining companies outsource 100 percent of those engineering services since this work surpasses their steady-state staffing.

“Our in-house technical team is well-staffed and maintained,” says Kyle Beebe, technical services manager at Hecla Mining Company’s Greens Creek Mine, which includes about thirty engineers, geologists, and surveyors. “But sometimes work exceeds our abilities to manage our day-to-day tasks and current underground projects or is very large and beyond our norm. Then we take it outside to consultants.”

Technical Services Team selfie and portrait
Clockwise, from left: engineering interns at Kensington Mine; their engineering superintendent; the technical services team gains on-the-ground (or rather, underground) experience; and a mine engineer who helps with the safe and efficient production of gold north of Juneau.

Coeur Alaska

workers underground and a portrait of a worker
People as a Resource
Even though technical services teams of in-house engineers represent only a small portion of the companies’ employment footprint, licensed engineers are scattered throughout every department. For instance, they often have jobs in maintenance, supply chains, continuous improvement, management, and leadership. While they may no longer practice engineering, their insights guide the mines and employees.

“Development of people is critical in mining,” says Bruce. “People often think of us as natural resource developers—and we are—but our commitment to develop our employees defines our work.”

Because so many leaders and managers in mining companies are licensed engineers, they mentor up-and-coming technical services team employees and review their designs. At Kensington, Ball says, “We often assign technical service employees to underground shifts for two to three months so they are exposed to conditions. They come up better understanding the challenges of mine.” Ball notes that cross-training increases efficiency while providing employees with opportunities to learn new skills and prepare to advance in the organization.

Mine engineering is its own discipline, yet technical services teams at operations like Fort Knox Mine also draw on the skills of mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers.


2 construction workers looking at soil
Like Coeur Alaska, Hecla also incorporates other departments’ and divisions’ insights into their technical service solutions. “We coordinate with the operations group in terms of trying to reach our annual targets, assessing what’s left to mine, and predicting what the next year will be like,” Beebe says. “We’re constantly looking for refinements and interfacing with operations to keep plans in line.”

Many mining companies—including Coeur Alaska, Hecla Mining Company, and Kinross Gold—have a heavy emphasis on hiring local residents. The companies have learned that when employees grow up and live nearby, they take the environmental and economic impacts much more seriously. For instance, currently 99 percent of the people who work at the Kinross Gold Fort Knox Mine are from the Interior. Many of them toured Fort Knox Mine during their elementary education—a tradition still offered today.

“Alaskans know the areas and what’s at stake,” Bruce says. “Their families, friends, and networks are here. They recreate here. They want our mines to be safe, efficient, and economical. They’re committed to returning the land to its pristine condition. Plus, the mining companies get the benefit of them remaining employed with us longer. Everyone wins.”

Each type of mine—zinc, lead, copper, gold, silver, or coal, as well as construction materials (such as sand, gravel, or rock)—requires customized engineering designs. The locations for each deposit call for attention to regional, geological, environmental, and economic sensitivities, and it’s the job of in-house engineers to keep all those factors in mind.