Working in Mineral Exploration: a guide
In the final throws of an undergraduate degree there are commonly two concerns: firstly, the cramming of knowledge to ensure the exam results guarantee the best overall grade and secondly lining up what to do afterwards. Across the applied sciences three options are commonly available: private industry, continued academia or governmental organisations, each with their own merits. While certain easily-measured metrics may be foremost in the decision-making process, when it comes to industry, certain personalities better suit different sectors of the market. Trying to go against this may put an individual under unnecessary stress, this results in full potential not being realised, from both an employees or employers perspective; either way resulting another job search.
This guide is a broad generalisation of the extractive mineral industry, written and edited from personal experiences. hopefully it can help in better targeting of companies and avoid disappointment during the first few exciting years in exploration.
Remember: you may have completed a degree and have a desire to enter the industry, but you are entering a global competitive marketplace and the sector itself owes nothing to you.
Do not simply wait for advertised positions, if the right candidates’ CV turns up on the right desk a position may be constructed to suit. The issue is getting it there; for privately owned mining and/or exploration companies this is hard as they are not required to have a public presence, the only contact will be through networking. For publicly listed companies, it is relatively easy to pull lists of these from the LSE (AIM), TSX (TSX-V), ASX and the NYSE, the four major hubs for raising mining capital in the world (London, Toronto, Sydney and New York).
Networking cannot be stressed enough, through this it is possible to meet those who will make hiring decisions. With a CV you get roughly 30 seconds to get across your technical ability and personality to the reader, in person you have much more time to try and convince them to a formal interview. Passive networking is open to everyone, i.e. those events put on by the institution where you are studying, actively seeking out external events (conferences, seminars, sundowners, etc.) commonly provides more productive contacts but in attending these may require costs.
These are the entrepreneurs in the sector, generally defined by having a market capitalisation less the USD$5M, usually they are small teams concentrating on projects either constrained to a country of deposit style. Due to their relatively small amount of operating cash flow, juniors don’t often see a project through to mining but sell or joint venture the project to a larger company at a stage between discovery and extraction. Another operating model is for a company to generate a portfolio of projects which are subsequently joint ventured for exploration (prospect generator), prior to mining. The number of junior companies varies with the general market, in boom times more companies exist and/or are operating whereas the opposite is true for periods of bust.
While publicly there may be a set of company values, owing to the companies’ small size, the management style and technical understanding of the management board (CEO, COO, MD, etc) strongly influence decision making, thus any hiring is at their discretion and personality is as an equally employable factor as technical qualification. Internships are commonly unpaid, but this is market dependant. An entry-level geologist will receive the most responsibility within a junior, but the learning curve is exponential and support is generally thin as the workload is intense with applied technical knowledge critical in daily decision making. Working on site in a camp for months on end is not uncommon and all those onsite ensure the camp stays operational.
Between the very large corporates and smaller companies, there are a diverse range of companies which have aspects of both end members. Mid-cap organisations, like juniors, are small enough to be dynamic in the market; but have the support of positive cash flow comparable to the multinationals. Where money is spent and how much risk is taken is directed more by the objectives of the board and senior management than the shareholders behind them. Mid-caps can grow into multinationals if they are successful, likewise a large corporate can either collapse or become too big and spin off a smaller enterprise resulting in a mid-cap. Within these companies much of the stable exploration work is undertaken globally by teams working both at the regional and project scale.
Graduate programs are not ran as extensively as the multinationals, however, with the appropriate mentor the experience can be more personal and tailored to an individual’s goals and improvement areas. These positions are equally matched with those for entry-level graduates, but movement between these is flexible and at a supervisors or managers discretion. Duties within roles are looser than multinationals, and while non-technical support roles may also be in place, it is likely a technical person is to engage with ancillary tasks to ensure work programs are executed effectively.
Rio Tinto, Anglo American, Barrick, etc: these are the big organisations within the sector commonly seen to have market capitalisations in the order of USD$100sM and are diversified in at least two of: commodity, country or deposit style. Being such large companies, corporate structure dominates. Individual personalities are kept to a minimum, what can mean large structural issues take time to fix and direct contact with the senior board (who can be commonly sourced from expertise outside the industry) is not possible. Few of these companies will disappear during a bust period, however, some may get too large and spin off a number of assets into a mid-cap company.
While they may have the most cash, this is commonly funnelled into the development and/or expansion of projects with exploration left to a core set of programs, where the project has significant potential to produce a world-class deposit, teamed with joint ventures or buy-outs of junior companies or their individual projects. They are less willing to take risk in exploration than any other smaller organisation as the risk is with developing operations into production. With their significant operating cash flow, these companies run strong graduate programs (along with paid internships) with some aligned to the development required to achieve chartered geologist or competent person status. These are usually 2 years during which you are moved around within and across operations, alongside a well-established support structure. However, it is still possible to enter these large organisations through entry-level roles, be wary as these are more restrictive both in duties, support and longevity. Both these positions are to be navigated through the centralised human resource departments. Duties within roles are usually clearly defined with other roles created for non-technical positions to support the scientific work.
All the above organisations maintain full or partial ownership of a project during its lifespan, however inside these there is commonly not the specialised technical knowledge necessary to complete activities to the level of which is required by stakeholders. This is where external support is used in the form of consultants. These can be individuals operating as a company offering niche knowledge to their own contact base, or larger organisations who regularly undertake specialist work. Neither option provides ownership of projects, with the work adhering to: scope, client requirements and justified results/conclusions. Given the single-employee nature of the former the only opportunity for employment is to setup one, which many people who have worked their lives in the sector do so after retiring. However, consulting groups do employ entry-level geologists with strong applied technical ability, demonstrated through high grades or further academic qualifications (that said, the ability to work in teams is still a requirement). As these groups work on a broad spectrum of projects from discovery through to closure, in any country or mineralising style, all employees receive exposure to this with the associated travel, intense workload and client management. Although now with a strong and accessible support structure in place.
The above hopefully sheds some light into the structure of companies to allow better targeting to whatever area you want to enter. If you have any further questions please email email@example.com and we will answer as much as we can.
The TCD SEG committee