Career Path: Mining Engineering

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Shashi Kanth could be the proverbial poster child illustrating the wealth of opportunity awaiting mining engineering graduates.

After earning his bachelor’s degree at KREC (NITK) Surathkal in India, the Bangalore native worked for three years in the mining industry before moving to the United States to pursue a master’s in mining engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota. He then worked for 17 years in a wide variety of positions in the mining industry before returning to the School of Mines in 2004 to rebuild the university’s namesake program which had, reflecting the industry downturn of the 1980s and 1990s, dwindled to a handful of students.

Today, the program boasts a healthy 132 undergraduate enrollment and three graduate students in its first year of a revived master’s program in mining engineering management.

During his 17 years in the mining industry, Kanth’s experiences spanned the explosives, construction, quarrying, dispatch systems and aerospace, and defense sectors. He set up international joint ventures, developed products, and managed programs. Like today’s mining engineering graduates, Kanth realized that for those who are broad-minded and receptive, the world is open.

The South Dakota School of Mines is one of just 14 American universities to offer a mining engineering program. Kanth learned about the university – originally founded in 1885 to educate miners who flocked to the Black Hills – from industry consultants. “The opportunities that exist for an engineer, especially in the mining industry, are very good. Specifically, this university is by far the best value proposition of any other in terms of tuition costs, living expenses, and the reputation of the school,” Kanth says.

Indeed, a highly reproduced Bloomberg News story this fall touted the fact that the average starting salary for all School of Mines graduates is $57,600 compared to $54,100 starting salaries of Harvard University graduates, who pay about four times as much to attend the Ivy League school per year.

Nationally, the average starting salary of a mining engineering graduate is even higher at $62,000, with the high end of the range as much as $95,000 and the low end at $55,000, according to Leigh Freeman, general manager and principal of Downing Teal Inc., a Denver, Colorado-based global recruitment specialist company.

Such an enviable starting salary for mining engineers is standard across the board no matter which university a new hire attended. And with a dearth of graduates throughout the United States, students in mining education are in high demand.

Last year 175 undergraduate students earned diplomas from American programs, a number far short of that which will be needed to fill a sustained 350-job void in the mining industry, says Freeman, who is also a member of the School of Mines Industrial Advisory Board, which has helped to strategically guide the program based on industry needs. A recognized expert and wealth of statistical information in his field, Freeman is the mining industry representative on a National Academy of Sciences study which has been collecting data to make sure the country will have enough minerals for the economy. The document, expected to be released by the end of the year, will help to build a case for reviving the mining industry and American educational programs to feed it.

“It will demonstrate the importance and will be an opportunity for us to recruit the best and the brightest, not only for us but internationally. The most critical element of the U.S. economy ultimately is manufacturing, and the beginning of the chain is adding more natural resources,” Freeman says.

The mining industry itself is and always will be a global industry. “One thing that uniquely sets mining apart from any other industry is that we deal with the natural resources. We have to go where the resources are, and that is global,” Kanth says. “It is absolutely essential that one looks at this industry with a global perspective. That includes talent pool from all over the world. That’s why mining is an attractive proposition for international students regardless of origin.”

One simply needs to pause to consider how natural resources are used all around them, resources that aren’t grown like crops but mined. “Almost every aspect of one’s life is impacted by materials that came from the ground,” Kanth says. For example, buildings are made with steel, which is forged from iron ore; limestone is a raw material used to make cement; and gypsum is used in interior room walls and ceilings and also shampoos and tennis courts.

Freeman acknowledges that for a number of reasons the mining industry does not have a good reputation with the general U.S. population. “We are thought to be unsafe and not a profession that embraces technology, and neither of those are true. So, we have done a poor job of sharing our story with the general population.”

But the numbers are improving. Last year’s national graduation rate of 175 mining engineering students was up compared to 125 and 130 over the previous two years, according to Freeman. “People are becoming aware of the employment opportunities, good salary and literally guaranteed jobs,” he says. In addition to recruiting more mining students and producing more graduates, the United States will be challenged to attract college professors to instruct them, Freeman says.

In addition to designing a mine for safety and production, jobs can be found in a wide variety of sectors, including design of mining equipment. Those with a mining education background may also find employment supporting the infrastructure of large cities such as design of underground subways and cable systems. There are also many opportunities for entrepreneurs, including those who support and service mining companies.

Some advice for international students considering a mining engineering education: keep up with technology and geo-political issues, build a network of industry professionals with common interests, and stay ahead of the curve in math and science.

Learn communication skills early on, as pure technical skills won’t take one far, Kanth says. “The soft skills of communication and teaming are critical.”

Although there is some flexibility for students to select courses they wish to take, the core curriculum is stringent. A typical general mining engineering degree will require courses in rock slope engineering or advanced rock mechanics, as well as courses in mineral economics, sustainability and mine regulation. Mathematics courses are likely to include differential equations, as well as calculus I and II.

Freeman points out that international students with an advanced degree from the United States enjoy preferential immigration rights. Half to two-thirds of the mining engineering graduate students in the United States are international students, and generally half of those students remain in the country when they graduate, Freeman says.

To learn more about mining engineering in the United States: