As the “war against coal” continues with Biden’s Paris climate commitment to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030, skilled miners for his clean energy plan have become scarce. Biden’s clean energy program needs critical minerals, which are essential for technologies such as batteries and wind turbines. Mining and geological engineering employment is estimated to grow 4 percent between 2019 and 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But, as demand increases for these minerals, there are fewer skilled workers to fill job openings in the industry. Both the decline in coal mining jobs and the coronavirus pandemic have made mine workers reassess their careers—some moving to new professions, others retiring, and others being lured to places promising higher wages (e.g., Australia, Canada).
Critical minerals have become increasingly important in recent years because they are key components in high-tech personal devices, green technologies like solar panels and defense systems like jet fighter engines. The U.S. imports the majority of its critical minerals, and the United States has sought to boost domestic mining of these minerals. As in other jobs with labor shortages, employers are raising pay. But, it appears that the American public holds a negative perception of mining, thinking of old pictures of dirty coal miners working in dangerous conditions, making it difficult to attract skilled labor and students to be trained at universities. In fact, many of these jobs are highly skilled and require advanced technological capabilities.
There has been a steady decline in the number of mining and mineral engineering programs at U.S. colleges and universities from a high of 25 in 1982 to 14 in 2014 as well as a corresponding decline in U.S. faculty (~120 in 1984 to ~70 in 2014) and a shortage of qualified candidates to fill faculty vacancies. Federal funding of studies and research in mining has been drastically reduced. The former federal Bureau of Mines has been dissolved, removing all funding for mining schools under the Mining and Mineral Resource Institutes Act of 1984.
Jobs Needed for Mining Critical Minerals
Many of the most common jobs in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction sectors are physically demanding. Mineworkers must be able to operate heavy machinery and deal with explosives in both surface and underground mines. Engineers, metallurgists, and mine managers design and coordinate mine operations. The average salary of an underground mining machine operator and extraction worker is $56,000, and mining and geological engineers make around $90,000, according to May 2020 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
According to the BLS, about 20 percent of workers in the mining, oil, and gas sector are over 55. In 2015, 43 percent of surveyed professionals in oil, gas, and mining firms said the loss of talent due to an aging workforce would become a problem in the next six to 10 years—a percentage that would be much higher now, 6 years later.
Critical minerals are essential to the transition to renewable energy technology and Biden’s goal with respect to his net-zero carbon economy. Despite the relatively high wages of mineworkers, the industry is having a hard time attracting workers due to the labor intensity of the jobs, the reduction in employment that occurred in the “war on coal” followed by additional retirements and job changes when the COVID pandemic hit, the difficulty of attracting students to the profession, and the lack of university programs in the field and faculty to teach them. Quite simply, the U.S. government has given mining and miners an undeserved bad name, at the very time when the demand for minerals mining required for “green energy” is expected to skyrocket. President Biden is going to have a difficult time attracting workers and obtaining the needed critical minerals in his attempt to reach his net-zero economy and to meet his commitment to the Paris climate accord.