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SKILLS CRUNCH

The critical minerals industry desperately needs new engineers

Enrique Marcarian
Minerals and skills by the cartful? 
Published

Luisa Moreno, president and director of the Canadian rare earth mining company Defense Metals, rattles off the ages of some of her colleagues.

Their chief metallurgist, who consults for the company, is 81. A petrologist and geologist, who serves as a part-time expert advisor, is in his late 80s. One of their directors, a mineralogist specializing in rare earths, is 80-something.

“This is a major, major problem,” said Moreno.

That problem, specifically, is an acute shortage of skills and new talent in the critical minerals industry, which supplies lithium for batteries, rare earths for permanent magnets, and copper for electric vehicles and battery storage. And Defense Metals is no anomaly: another rare earths company she was chatting with recently has an average employee age of 75, she said.

“I think that skills is a missing element,” Peter Handley, who works for the European Commission on issues related to energy-intensive industries, said at a recent webinar on critical minerals. “We need to have resources, we need to have the refining, we need to have everything from exploration through to the recycling and reuse of things.”

The skills crisis that is bad news for your electric car

To source enough raw material to power the global energy transition is as much a challenge of mining the earth as it is of hiring people to do that. 

Right now, there’s a shortage of both. The Paris-based International Energy Agency warned last year that insufficient mineral supply threatens to derail the energy transition. On the human capital front, a shortage of mining engineers and operators risks stalling projects.

In a report published last week (pdf), the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association (AREEA) predicted that the country’s mining industry will require an additional 24,000 workers over the next five years to operate over 100 mining projects. Dozens of these are critical minerals projects, though the categorization of critical and strategic minerals differs across countries.

“Our industry is battling the worst skills crisis in a generation,” Steve Knott, the chief executive of AREEA, said in a statement.

Britain faces a similar problem. The UK Mining Education Forum, representing mining firms and organizations, said in a report (pdf) that the country faces a “developing crisis” in the lack of graduates entering the sector. The UK’s industry needs at least 60 new mine engineering and minerals processing graduates each year, but none have enrolled in undergraduate courses in those fields since 2019.

Europe fares slightly better: It has a number of what Handley calls a number of “brilliant schools” that train mining engineering talent.

“But there aren’t enough...projects for those people coming out of European schools to work in,” Handley said during the webinar. “They have to go work for junior miners in Africa [operated by] Australian or Canadian enterprises. We’re not making the best use of the human potential and growing interest in this whole field that we have.”

China’s engineering advantage in critical minerals

A shortage of engineers also complicates efforts to reduce dependence on China for critical minerals.

While more mining projects are starting up outside China, the country still dominates the processing of critical minerals—a series of complex steps that turn raw ore into high-purity material. Without sufficient processing capacity, the rest of the world remains heavily reliant on China for these midstream processes. And to build up that capacity requires engineers who are trained in the fundamentals of minerals processing.

“We need more time to establish an intermediate supply chain, which is concentrated in China right now,” said Kotaro Shimizu, chief analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting. “And for that, we need to grow more and more trained engineers in the intermediate process.”

This is a classic chicken and egg problem. Without a sizeable mining industry, there’s little incentive for students to study that field. Yet without sufficient specialized graduates, there isn’t enough talent to build up the industry.

The EU is addressing part of this problem with a new European Battery Alliance Academy to train 800,000 workers by 2025 for the bloc’s battery industry. The €10 million ($10.2 million) program will address skills gaps across the supply chain.

Moreno thinks that countries like the US and Canada have no choice but to work with China, where so much expertise is concentrated. Defense Metals, for example, has a partnership with the Chinese state-owned giant Sinosteel that involves mineral processing test work. Another example is the US rare earths miner MP Materials, which currently sells its rare earth concentrate to its Chinese partner, to be processed in China.

“I believe that the shortcut is for us to go to the Chinese and find collaborations, and that will potentially fast track things for us,” said Moreno.

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