How to Train Your Metallurgist?

The mining and minerals industry is as diverse and rewarding as it is demanding and challenging. While the demand for metallurgists and mineral processors is forecasted to be high for the next 10 years, due to cyclic nature of the mining industry, only a select few from the next generation will choose to become metallurgists, contributing to a long term skills shortage that the industry will soon face. The lifestyle preference of Generation Y & Z, or simply known as Millennials, adds further complications as this generation typically chooses an urban lifestyle – preferring to build their careers in high-rise towers rather than getting on the ground, sometimes quite literally, on-site far away from the city. Hence it is important to motivate and retain young professionals and to ensure they develop and learn as quickly as they are required to take on increasingly critical roles, often with little support.

Over the past few years, the declining interest of young people and resulting skills shortage has forced the mining industry to recruit engineers from other disciplines such as chemical or process engineers. Although professionals in their own right, these employees have little to no background in metallurgy or mining and require comprehensive training and professional development programs before they are able to work in a mineral processing or hydrometallurgical plant environment. Even in the case of newly graduated metallurgists from a traditional four year post-secondary program, it is only the beginning to an endless learning process. The challenge is how we can train these young professionals to become the next generation of technical specialists and how they can advance to supervisory positions.

Lifelong learning is not only an industry norm nowadays, but as ore grades decline and mineralogical complexity of ores increases, practical metallurgical skills are more important than ever in ensuring that today’s mining operations operate efficiently and profitably.

In this post we try to highlight the importance of the professional development training programs and how the industry can train its present and future metallurgist / mineral processing engineers.

Who is a Metallurgist?

Metals and minerals surround us everywhere in modern society. They are major components of almost every product we use as the uses of minerals and metals and their alloys are endless. It is this strong dependence of modern living on minerals and metals that gives the profession of metallurgist, mineral processors, and metallurgical engineering its sustained importance in the 21st century. After all, the economic and technical progress of the human race has historically been correlated to advances in metal and mineral technologies.

Within the minerals industry, metallurgists work at remote mine sites at concentrator and metals recovery operations, as well as smelters and metals refineries, or can also be found in research and development laboratory settings. They use their knowledge of math, chemistry, physics, mineralogy, underlying process fundamentals, and process engineering to control and improve processes that separate, concentrate, and recover minerals and their valuable metals from the natural ores. Depending on the specific mineral or metal, processing may include stages that upgrade or concentrate the mined ore along with the extraction of intermediate metal products. This primary metallurgical extraction process can include wet or hydrometallurgical, high-temperature or pyro-metallurgical, or electro-metallurgical stages. Sometimes, crude metals can go through complex refining processes. The metal products can be subject to further processing, termed secondary metallurgy or physical metallurgy that includes processes such as alloying, casting in foundries, rolling, and extrusion (adopted from AusIMM mineral industry career).

With depleting sources of easily accessible metals and minerals, we are venturing into deep space and oceans as part of continual natural resource exploration. As such, the industry demands professionals who study, innovate, design, implement, and improve the processes that convert mineral resources and metals into useful products which improve the quality of our daily lives. Those professionals are metallurgists!

What Job/s Metallurgist Do in Mining and Mineral Industry?

While the required skillset of a metallurgist is somewhat location dependent (e.g. on-site, engineering consulting, or research and development), the following scope contains common attributes of their practice:

  • Conduct metallurgical testwork (bench scale and pilot test) on field and laboratory samples in order to analyses behaviour of an ore for further processing.
  • Evaluate, recommend, and implement metallurgical sampling and analyse production data to optimise plant performance.
  • Identifies issues and bottlenecks in metallurgical or processing circuits and by correcting, mitigating, or improving processes.
  • Implement industry benchmark and best practices in the field of metallurgy and process engineering.
  • Analyse technical data and documents to prepare reports to internal and external stakeholders.
  • Ensure that proper health and safety documentation is generated for projects and tasks that is consistent with engineering policies and procedures.

Improve environmental performance of metallurgical operations and ensure all environmental standards are met.

  • Complete daily and weekly production and reagents inventory management.
  • Conduct metallurgical accounting, mass, water, and energy balances.
  • Involved in financial business concepts ranging from scoping to feasibility studies.
  • Design unit processes and extractive metallurgical plants.
  • Perform computer modelling and simulation of the process circuits (in the field of mineral processing, hydrometallurgy or pyro- metallurgy).
  • Work with variety of the people from different discipline such as operators, maintenance, mine engineers, geologists, equipment vendors, environmental regulators, etc.
  • Manage the workforce in a supervisory role.

What a Young Metallurgist Should Focus Learning in his/her First 4 Years on the Job?

As a rule of thumb as per AusIMM graduate Program guideline:

  • First three months: Familiar themselves with company policies and procedures as well as coworkers; be known to people through networking.
  • First year: Gain hands-on experiences and activities under the supervision of a mentor on discipline specific areas such as health & safety, crushing, grinding, flotation, dewatering, laboratory techniques, and sampling.
  • Second year: Perform first year tasks with reduced supervision in addition to learning business and management skills such as project management, financial analysis, reporting, etc.
  • Third year: Be able to instruct others on first 2 years of activities in addition to learning about process design, research, circuit modelling, and contract management.
  • Fourth year: Continue learning using external training courses and workshops to master their skills.

On top of this all, junior metallurgists should seek further education through enrolling in related courses and continuing their professional development through attending conferences as well as writing and presenting papers.

What are the Role of Senior Metallurgists as a Mentor?

  • Create a challenging and positive team environment to ensure that junior members receive the professional development and mentorship that will develop them into industry leaders.
  • Empower, engage, and delegate instead of spoon feeding.
  • Share engineering best practices and promote open dialogue with them.
  • Let junior engineers make mistakes but ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.
  • Assist and guide each young metallurgist in developing his/her own unique training plan and to ensure their ongoing suitability and effectiveness by holding a “bird’s-eye view”.
  • Ensure that training plans contain a good mix of:
    • Metallurgical plant operation experience
    • Engineering, design, and commissioning of metallurgical plants and small projects
    • Research, development, and technology transfer.

What are the Role of Industry to Train and Retain the Professionals?

  • Professionals don’t make themselves as are certainly not free, so if industry wants to improve their businesses and to move forward, they must take a long-term view in committing to investment in training.
  • Expose graduate metallurgists, mineral processors, and process engineers to all disciplines.
  • Assign an experienced, accountable, and committed mentor.
  • Talent training in mineral processing areas should be conducted for sustainable development of mineral resources exploitation and utilization.
  • To be able to close the professionals’ skills gap and shortage, industry needs to invest in training seriously.
  • Avoid taking the most expensive option in training and professional development which is the “Doing Nothing” option!
  • Create action plans for achieving the learning goals of the young professional.

What are OreVenture Training & Technical Services’ Recommendations for Young Metallurgists?

Beyond what is suggested above are our recommendation:

  • Obtain your professional recognition from the jurisdiction that you are working in (P. Eng or Chartered states) and maintain it.
  • Become an active member of societies and professional organisation such as ASM International (American Society for Metals), The Society for Mining, Metallurgy, & Exploration, South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), AusIMM, CIM, etc.
  • Continue learning that includes training courses and workshops, self-study, technical conferences, seminars, expos, site visits, and meetings of professional bodies (Continuing Professional Development – CPD).
  • Present in conferences, expos, professional organisation, lunch and learn sessions, professional networking events, etc.
  • Share your ideas and ask stupid questions – there are no stupid questions!
  • Step out of your comfort zone and make your dreams reality. Sometimes FIFO life experiences gives you lessons that you can never learn from university of college classes.
  • Expose yourself to various commodities and never stop learning. Personal and professional growth does not happen while you are in your comfort zone. Learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
  • Know your industry pioneers and follow them (e.g. who the famous names are in gold industry, etc.)
  • Know your industry bible books and read them!
  • Be ambitions especially in your learning expectations. More is less in learning. Do not be the smartest guy in the room!
  • Follow technological advances and be innovative. Look for out-of-box solutions. Listen to plant operators as they might not have university degree but have lots of experience and oversight!
  • Culture the change, change yourself.
  • Have your own personal log book to record lessons learned (and use it for your next 40 years in industry). If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.
  • Familiarize yourself with the right tools, software, etc.
  • Learn about other disciplines (geology, mine engineering, laws – mineral law – etc.).
  • Be part of the team, no one succeeds alone.
  • Be proactive, self-motivated, positive, proud, and honest.
  • Know your industry trends, advances, market, challenges, up and down, players, etc.
  • Learn “tricks of the trade” by working with front line operators and workers.
  • Once again we emphasise that lifelong learning is a must as the field of metallurgy is constantly changing.

Last But Not Least: Maintaining Your Abilities and Educate Yourself through OreVenture Courses & Workshops

Several states in USA and provinces in Canada require engineers to participate in professional development activities in order to keep their licenses. In Australia, this is required for chartered states.

OreVenture Training and Technical Services is a training hub that offers additional training and professional development in mining and mineral industry for metallurgists, mineral processors, and process engineers including those who are relatively new to the mining industry.

Some courses and workshops that you can use as a “fast-track” training program for your young professionals and operators are: