Sauder on the Rocks
Mining exploration is composed primarily of geologists, engineers and labourers – as a commerce student, I was an anomaly working in a gold exploration camp this summer. It is a predominant industry in downtown Vancouver, yet it has little recruiting presence at the Sauder School of Business.
I worked as a geotechnical assistant in a camp of 55 people living in tents in northern British Columbia. The camp ran 5 drills and I assisted geologists in logging the rock core drilled. I am not particularly interested in rocks or data entry, but it was an entry point into the industry, or what I considered a well-paid interview.
Work in exploration camps generally runs for 5 weeks on and 2 weeks off by contract at rates of over $200 per day. This makes tuition a very manageable burden for a student while working in a rent- and expense-free lifestyle (with three 5-star meals a day). The downside is that as a contractor you do not receive employee benefits, you are unable to collect unemployment insurance and you have to manage your own tax payments.
The adventure aspect of mining exploration is very appealing. New mine locations are usually discoverable only by helicopter and the industry can take you all over the world from South America to Antarctica. Sometimes you will be stuck in camp, but your recreational activities can include hiking, cliff jumping, exploring abandoned mine sites and even gold panning.
The greatest part of camp is the diverse set of people you build a small community with. You are required to co-exist with unique personality types you may not have otherwise met in the normal world. Patience is necessary at times, but people are mostly surprising in a positive way as they break their job-related stereotypes. There is a lot of insight and wisdom to be found from within camp – each meal or hike is a networking event. The transient atmosphere always provides a new avalanche expert, environment surveyor, consultant or helicopter pilot to talk with.
Exploration is typically done by entrepreneurial geologists or engineers and can be difficult for a commerce student start in without much relevant experience or knowledge of the industry. It’s wise to take any entry point available to gain an understanding of operations inside and outside the camp. My first week in camp I was building tents with the carpenters and dug an outhouse hole. It’s very liberating digging a hole so deep you need help getting out, but the important idea is to be a team player and be as helpful as possible. The chaotic pace of life will quickly offer opportunities to take on new responsibilities and learn about the strategy, logistics and management of exploration.
A masters program is also a great idea to get up to speed with the experience and wisdom the industry is based on. Without studying mining in an undergraduate degree it is overwhelming to enter an industry and know where to start. A masters in mining economics could lead to a consultant position allowing opportunity for travel but a more family-friendly lifestyle with a home-based office.
The fun and adventurous side of mining exploration unfortunately has the destructive intention of creating a mine site. It’s an ethical dilemma that imposes mining pits, tailing ponds and every imaginable sort of pollution onto an undisturbed landscape. Most geologists and geotechnical engineers are attracted to the industry by their love for the great outdoors, but our exploration has a consequence. Our camp acknowledged our role in the destruction of the environment and awkwardly wore drilling company promotion t-shirts boasting, “Save the planet, put it in a core box,” referring to drilling the rock from the ground.
Mining exploration is a rugged and exciting industry involving travel and camp living experiences. If it doesn’t fit as a long-term lifestyle, it is at least a unique opportunity to develop operations management skills and a team-player mentality. Entering the industry can be difficult because of a focus on the geologist or engineer recruitment, but it is also an interesting opportunity for a commerce student.