Juneau mine training program takes off

The mining industry needs more than just miners — it needs harbor masters, chefs, dentists and lawyers.

“Each mine is almost like it’s own little small town,” said Graham Neale, director of the Center for Mine Training at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Neale spoke at the weekly Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday to paint a picture of what the mining industry means for Alaska and the direction it’s headed.

With more than 140 possible careers, the mining industry provided 8,700 direct and indirect jobs in 2014 statewide, according to a study by the McDowell Group. Those jobs generate $600 million in payroll, but keeping that money in the state is another matter, Neale said.

“That money goes with (out-of-state workers),” Neale said. “That economic benefit doesn’t apply to the local community.”

The Hecla Mining group and UAS started a program in 2012 to counter the trend of hiring out-of-state mining industry workers, which leads to a high turnover rate. That program, an Introduction to Mining Occupations and Operations (IMOO) course, initially targeted high school students in Juneau. Its popularity in the capital city spread across Southeast Alaska and it has since been accessed online statewide. This year it has even opened its doors to adults searching for a new career.

“We broadcast our introduction class over the Internet and offer full scholarships to bring students to Juneau,” Neale said. “That’s a great opportunity for people in remote villages.”

From 2012 to 2015, 151 high school students completed the IMOO course. From there, 36 went on to the Hecla Greens Creek Mine Academy, a summer workshop where students complete Mine Safety and Health Administration training. Four of those students are now on a mining career path.

The original goal for the program was to see a growth of up to 5,000 mining jobs by the year 2020. But too many unknowns — including financial woes — make it hard to say if that figure will be reached.

“We’ve all been affected by this economic downturn,” Neale said. “What we’re really doing is going around the world and North America in particular looking for investment dollars.”

Neale, who also serves as chairman of the Ketchikan/Prince of Wales chapter of the Alaska Miners Association, testified against a bill to raise taxes in Alaska mines last month at the state Capitol, urging legislators to consider how a tax hike could discourage new mine growth.

Neale said keeping eyes on Alaska, and Juneau in particular, is what the state needs to focus on.

UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield was in the audience Thursday and seconded the message presented by Neale.

“With budget cuts all across Alaska, mine training remains one of the major goals of the UAS president,” Caulfield said. “There’s an idea or proposal out there that UAS would be recognized as the leader in mining in the UA system with Juneau continuing to be the lead.”

• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or paula.solis@juneauempire.com.

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