Courtesy of Colorado Mining Association

The mining industry faces a tall order: adapt to a changing landscape of an aging workforce, heightened competition for talent, and the ever-present duty to ensure employee safety.

According to those who speak next week, the industry is up to the task.

Next Tuesday marks the 120th annual National Western Mining Conference, hosted by the Colorado Mining Association in Denver. The conference is a yearly gathering of the world’s top mining companies, government officials, vendors, and investors to discuss the changes, challenges and progress being made within Colorado’s $9 billion mining industry.

This year, the overall theme will be looking toward the future of mining. Speakers will discuss how cutting-edge technology will help mining enhance safety and efficiency, and how mining companies today will be able to compete with tech companies to recruit the miners of the future.

These themes will be on full display during the separate 2018 HackMines Newmont Innovation Challenge—a partnership between Newmont Mining and the Colorado School of Mines that began in February and ends in April. The event will allow for students to showcase their most innovative ideas and earn feedback from CMA attendees, with a chance to receive grants up to $7,500 from Newmont for the competition’s best ideas.

Innovation, Safety, and Transparency

The industry refuses to be complacent, and according to the conference’s Chairman, Jared Rhea, the future of mining is now.

Rhea, a mining engineer at Trapper Mining, Inc. and a member of CMA’s Board of Directors, will moderate a panel on mining technologies that spans efforts from drone implementation and monitoring to safety and fatigue oversight, using apps and wearable technology.

Rhea told Western Wire it is important to understand where mining is now and also to acknowledge and try to anticipate where it is going in the future when it comes to technology, safety, and sustainability.

“When I joined CMA the talk was, ‘when is the future of mining going to be here?’” Rhea said, and for those already in the industry, “the future is right now.”

“Drones and real-time data acquisition,” according to Rhea, will be the centerpiece of the discussion, along with operator monitoring and fatigue awareness. “That fits the wearables and a lot of the stuff we are using to track individuals, what they’re doing, where they’re moving, and how they’re reacting to their environment.”

Incorporating rising technology that serves multiple purposes, such as drones, has given the mining industry a new set of tools that not only enhances productivity but adds another layer of safety for workers.

“How do we keep people out of the pit bottoms and out of harm’s way, potentially” with drone technology is just the beginning, Rhea said.

“If you look at a piece of equipment from 30 years ago compared to today for operator cab convenience and comfort and rollover and falling object protection—if you’re in a piece of equipment today at a mine, that’s about the safest place in the world you could be,” Rhea said. “There’s so much engineering and thought that has gone into making sure their work areas are safe.”


“The drones were a natural progression from surveyors and boots on the ground to having a person in the field but out of harm’s way,” he said.

Rhea credited the recreational use of drone technology for driving the innovation in equipment and proof of concept over the last five to 10 years that made it attractive and commercially viable for use in other sectors, like mining.

Drones allow more frequent and cost-effective monitoring to be conducted, he said.

“What we used to do once a month can now be done once every two days if we wanted to,” Rhea said. “That’s leading to better decision-making for us.”

Knowing how to incorporate innovative and groundbreaking technology for safety applications requires a safety and best practices mindset instilled in employees and industry-wide that emphasizes safety first. According to Rhea, production and everything else will fall into place if safety is the first consideration.

“Safety has always been my number one priority,” Rhea said, describing a career that covers 15 years and five separate mining operations. “That’s really the driver for everything.”

Fresh eyes in the industry and fresh eyes on an operation increase the likelihood of success, with real-time monitoring and quicker, better decision-making processes.

“We are constantly getting better at it,” he said. “Where we are mining and how we are moving dirt.”

Rhea said that the data and technology have helped increase mining’s transparency in an era of increased pressure from regulation and activism.

“We are proud of what we do,” Rhea. “This is world class stuff. We really are moving mountains.”

Recruiting the “Miners of the Future”

Mining is not only going through a technological transition but is also experiencing a transition when it comes to personnel.  As one generation of mine workers nears retirement, the industry is tasked with replacing this group with a new crop of young candidates.  But how will the mining industry adapt to a changing workforce with new priorities, while competing with tech companies like Google to attract top talent?  CMA’s “Miners of the Future” panel will discuss these issues and more.

“One of the first [topics] we’re going to talk about would be the perception of mining today as you go out to recruit individuals, and how has that changed over time—what opportunities do candidates perceive or think about working in the mining industry, how are we perceived today,” said recently retired VP of Human Resources for AngloGold Ashanti North America, Charlene Wilson. Wilson will moderate the panel.

“Do people see that as an opportunity to make a difference in their community and do they view mining as an industry that’s moving forward, or is it an old industry that’s dying out—that’s one of the first things we want to talk about, is the perception out there,” she said.

Wilson says that while the mining sector as a whole is successfully deploying new technology and achieving its own innovation breakthroughs, these narratives are not being effectively parlayed to the public.

“One of the things we had talked about that used to be done but not sure that it’s being done as much as it used to be was really educating people early on in their school careers,” Wilson said.  “Explaining about mining, what it is, and I don’t know that that much is being done today to educate people about [the industry]. So I think people maybe are getting more of the negative than they are of the positive impacts mining can have.”

Those positive impacts are not just economic or connected to the countless products we use in daily life that depend upon mining. They are also felt directly in the communities in which these companies operate

“You can see it in the community because it provides employment for people, good salaries, good wages, good benefits, you look at studies that have been done over the years, mining pays well,” Wilson said.

She also said the panel will discuss fostering professional development within the industry.

“We also want to talk about, how do you develop talent and once you bring an individual into the organization, and how you move them through your organization and give them opportunities for leadership and development so they can see a career path,” Wilson said.

There are also opportunities for outside development, according to Wilson, that draw on experience in other sectors to keep mining robust.

“And you also have people… they went out and they came back later and maybe they bring another skill set because they do leave and come back and bring another perspective. So sometimes people leaving isn’t all that bad.  If it’s the right person and you bring them back into the organization, sometimes it’s a win/win.”

Partnering with Higher Education

To remain a healthy and vibrant industry, mining, according to CMA, will need a different approach to recruitment and training, mentorship and research, and maintaining relationships with the schools that are instructing the next generation of miners.

One program that blends competition and mentorship, along with the business and entrepreneurial skills that will allow students to launch their own products and companies is located in Golden, Colo., at the Colorado School of Mines, which hosts the annual HackMines challenge.

“This team-based competition is a fun opportunity to apply your creative innovation skills to a big, real world challenge. No specific expertise or knowledge is required,” according to the 2018 HackMines Newmont Innovation Challenge. “In this Competition you will learn about the Mining industry and several areas of opportunity for innovation, brainstorm innovation ideas, formulate and iterate basic prototypes, and prepare and present your team’s idea/innovation to a panel of judges.”

Above the Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colo.–Shutterstock

Winners with the “best ideas” will receive up to $7,500 in grant from Newmont Mining Corp. to continue working on their idea. The event is hosted by the Colorado School of Mines.

Teams receiving the HackMines grant will begin working with a mentor and receive input on refining their prototype and the opportunity to attend entrepreneurship workshops and tour mining operations.

“The future of mining is in its people as much as it is in technological innovation,” Stan Dempsey, Jr., President of CMA, told Western Wire. Making investments in technology and providing current industry employees that are beginning to age out—forcing the need to replace a retiring workforce—isn’t enough if the industry fails to begin to reach out to the next generation of potential mining employees.

That includes meeting them on their terms, as a highly technologized cohort that grew up in a digital world, according to Dempsey. Meeting their needs by providing an outlet for cutting-edge and innovative approaches with a competition like HackMines helps to bridge the divide between an industry that is seeing stiff competition for recruiting young engineers and other STEM graduates from other tech sectors and current and future students motivated by different factors than earlier generations.

That includes envisioning a mining career not just as resource development, but as a way to make the world a better place to live, through technology that relies on mining, Dempsey said.

CMA sees the panel on “Partnerships with Higher Education” exploring the university-industry relationship as a showcase of how effective the “preparation and development of the next generation of mining industry professionals” can be enhanced through outreach initiatives like HackMines that inspire interest in mining careers, and invite university-level research that focuses on innovation and technology.