The United States Needs More than Mining Engineers to Solve Its Critical Mineral Challenges
Critical minerals are the building blocks of U.S. economic and national security. These unique materials possess physical and chemical traits which allow them to be deployed in a variety of advanced technologies, many of which are fundamental to the energy transition, climate change mitigation, and U.S. military development.
Recent announcements of the United States and Japan’s trade deal for battery mineral sourcing and U.S. financing to Canadian mining projects through the Mineral Security Partnership highlight the increasing interest in reducing dependency on supply chains controlled by adversarial nations. However, despite continued government interventions and investment of capital in domestic and allied mining projects, a major workforce gap and talent crunch threatens the ability for these nations to successfully achieve their critical mineral ambitions.
Workforce Challenges in Numbers
The workforce and talent gap is nothing new to those who spend time in the mining and geoscience space, but the increased demand for supply of critical minerals has exacerbated the problem. More than half the current domestic mining workforce will need to be retired and replaced by 2029 (roughly 221,000 workers). This number stands in stark contrast to the total of just 327 degrees awarded in 2020 in mining and mineral engineering and a 39 percent net drop in graduations in the United States since 2016. University programs tasked with creating this workforce have also been decreasing, with the number of mining and mineral engineering programs in the United States dropping from 25 in 1982 to 15 in 2023. This is in stark contrast to China, which has over 38 mineral processing schools and upwards of 44 mining engineering programs. Central South University, China’s largest mineral processing program, has 1,000 undergraduates and 500 graduate students alone ready to accomplish China’s mineral ambitions.
This trend is compounded by a continued decline in broader geoscience enrollment over the last decade and a decline in U.S. faculty and qualified candidates to fill teaching roles. The Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration found in 1984 there were 120 experts who could teach on these important subjects, with only 70 left by 2014 and stagnating. It also becomes difficult for the experts to effectively train new leaders while also having to serve on committees and mining companies to help achieve critical mineral projections as quickly as possible. Even with a wide array of career openings and lucrative salaries (the average salary of a mining and mineral engineering graduate is $115,761), young professionals are not interested in mining as an attractive sector. Polling conducted by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council found over 70 percent of young people from 15 to 30 polled “definitely” or “probably would not” consider pursuing mining. The mining industry is aware of this challenge, with 86 percent of mining executives stating it is harder to recruit talent than it was two years ago despite growing concern about mineral supplies.
The United States is not unique in facing this challenge. Canada and Australia are suffering similar challenges to the United States despite being leaders in this sector. By 2030, the Canadian mining industry is estimated to see a shortage of roughly 80,000 to 120,000 workers, which is a worrying statistic for a nation which hosts over 75 percent of the world's mining companies. Australia has also seen many mining job vacancies more than double since February 2020, with the country needing 24,400 new workers by 2026 and the market forecasting to only supply about 16,000 in that time frame. These statistics advise a serious redirect in how the mining industry and society at large engage in conversations about mineral extraction and why these materials are essential in daily life.
It Takes More Than Mining Engineers and Mineral Processing Experts
Maintaining emphasis on the more technical and skilled labor fields is necessary for resolving the workforce and a talent crunch, but the systemic issues facing the United States and its allies are indicative of a deeply rooted problem across Western societies and how disconnected the public and policymakers have become with natural resources and the mining necessary to meet policy goals in defense, development, and economic policy.
First, there must be an emphasis on early education and the way young people engage with natural resources and mining. Early education has a major role to play in how children and future generations understand their natural resources. Only two states in the United States require a year-long earth science or environmental science course for high school graduation. Less than a quarter of high school students receive instruction in Earth Science and less than 7 percent of students decide to take advantage of earth science classes in high school. Even when Earth Science components are introduced in elementary and middle school, they are focused on trivial concepts of rock and mineral identification, rather than why these resources matter to their life and society as a whole. As schools move closer to more integrated STEM education, high school programs need to find a way to integrate the concepts of critical minerals, sustainability, and other science disciplines into earth science courses. Connecting new ideas of geoscience communication into social media platforms and connecting with younger generations earlier on is a long-term effort but necessary when developing future talent and workforce capacity.
Second, there needs to be an investment in developing new mineral-security courses and training throughout the government and international affairs programs across the country, especially in Washington. After the abolishment of the Bureau of Mines in 1996, the United States took a strong stance on focusing its energy efforts in the oil, gas, and coal industry. To address the national security challenges of the time, students were trained by energy professionals who were accustomed to challenges related to hydrocarbons rather than metals. Countless courses and programs dedicated to oil politics and “energy security” of the Middle East dominated policy education and analysis. Hydrocarbon politics will remain important, but university and professional development programs will need to invest in training future leaders in the complexities of mineral supply chains and the environmental, human, and national security implications of mining. The Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy provides a template for this curriculum, but it is focused on working professionals rather than college students. The University of Delaware’s Minerals, Materials, and Society Certificate Program, and Rice University’s Baker Institute are two of the few public policy and social science programs focused centrally on critical mineral issues.
Third, civil society will be critical for connecting with current voters and communities across the country. Promoting mineral literacy, or the concept of increasing public awareness around minerals and their uses through education and community events with industry and government actors, is essential in this capacity-building effort. Boots-on-the-ground nonprofit organizations such as Minerals Ed and Friends of Mineralogy are community-driven organizations that produce publications, infographics, and materials essential in building social license and getting voter support. However, a clear line needs to be drawn between the role of mineral literacy groups compared to industry advocacy groups. National associations, such as the National Mining Association and the American Geoscience Institute, are heavily involved in domestic policy and education, but they are not local groups that can engage at the community level. Organization that can engage thoroughly locally without having to take time away from work or the hectic demand of producing minerals for the market will be necessary for the future of the industry. Outside of these industry associations, there are currently no large-scale mineral literacy organizations in the United States, which presents a unique investment opportunity but also a significant gap in domestic critical mineral strategy.
So, what can the U.S. government do to help increase workforce numbers and improve society’s understanding of mineral resources and their daily life? There are some immediate options first: First, the federal government could directly support the creation of mining and geological programs to prepare students to meet the United States’ future energy needs. Bipartisan legislation has been proposed to do this. Senators John Barasso (R-WY) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced S.912, the Technology Grants to Strengthen Domestic Mining Education Act of 2023, which would establish a grant program for mining schools to receive funds to recruit students and carry out studies, research projects, or demonstration projects related to the production of minerals and establish the Mining Professional Development Advisory Board to evaluate applications and recommend recipients to the secretary of energy. Second, the federal government could also allocate funding to support state and national mineral literacy organizations to help engage voters on the use of natural resources and the importance of minerals. These organizations are either nonexistent or severely underfunded, and support from the government would open more opportunities for engagement rather than sole financing by the mining sector.
Mining companies and government agencies should recognize that many of these policy interventions and support mechanisms will take time, which is a limited resource given heightened geopolitical competition and increased supply challenges. Without addressing these structural challenges and deep-rooted issues that extend far beyond college geoscience and mining degrees right now, the United States and its allies will fall flat on their climate goals and future industrial plans.
Thomas Hale is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.