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industries and opportunities

Dump trucks move waste rock around the Highland Valley Copper Mine in British Columbia.JOHN LEHMANN

These are high times for the mining business. It has shrugged off the effects of the 2008 recession on the strength of robust commodity prices. Canada is well-positioned to supply the resource-hungry economies of China and India, our markets are the preferred destination for companies seeking financing, and the industry has $137-billion worth of investment earmarked for the next five years.

What could go wrong? Simply put, running out of people to run the nation's $36-billion-a-year mining machine.

"There is a huge shift in demographics in the country, in the mining industry, and we are certainly experiencing it in our company," said Marcia Smith, senior vice-president of sustainability and external affairs at Teck Resources Ltd.

The Vancouver-based coal and copper producer, which employs more than 8,000 people across the country, plans to hire 4,600 people over the next few years. "We are madly recruiting. We have lots and lots of jobs in British Columbia that are we are trying to fill, and that is a challenge."

The mining industry predicts it will need about 100,000 new workers over the next decade, a demand that has government, education institutions and companies scrambling.

This is not just about the future. In fact, the industry is in the midst of "a pretty acute labour shortage," said Pierre Gratton, president and chief executive officer of the Mining Association of Canada. "It is across the board, everything from heavy equipment to engineers to geologists to accountants."

The average age of workers in the mining business is older than that of most other industries, particularly in critical roles such as geology. Most companies have a work force with plenty of people in their fifties and a large group younger than 30, with fewer of the Generation X cohort in between. It's a stunted harvest of tough times 20 years ago.

"In the 1990s because we weren't doing very well, we weren't hiring a lot of people," Mr. Gratton said. "We missed that generation."

Mining companies are trying to ensure that the hard-earned knowledge of baby boomer-aged employees doesn't retire along with them. "We are working on that right now, how we transfer knowledge from older workers to younger workers," said Teck Resources' Ms. Smith. "Phased retirements, all those kinds of things."

Besides a bright-looking future, the mining business can offer new workers relatively high pay and an almost unmatched opportunity for adventure.

"There aren't many Canadian sectors where you can get a job and find yourself working in Madagascar the next day and then two years later find yourself in Papua New Guinea," Mr. Gratton said.

Despite strong commodity prices, the industry remains wary based upon the mood of the 30,000 industry players who descended on Toronto for the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention this month.

"What is happening in Europe has affected the capital markets for access to capital for the exploration sector," said Ross Gallinger, the association's executive director. "It is a bit of a concern for us."

Access to capital is a key pillar for mining prospectors, the other being access to land on which to hunt for minerals and metals. For about a decade now, Canada has attracted the largest share of investment for prospecting, outpacing Australia.

Canada does have some home-field advantage when it comes to attracting resource-hunting geologists in the form of the Mineral Exploration Tax Credit. Lower corporate tax rates help, too.

The other major concern for the industry is regulation, an area that the federal Conservative government is slowly addressing. "The main irritants have been around environmental assessment (EA) and the Fisheries Act," Mr. Gratton said. "The government made some changes in 2010 that went a long way to improving how federal EA is conducted and they probably shaved 18 months off the time it used to take to complete an EA."

The industry is lobbying Ottawa to require just one environmental assessment to be carried out prior to the development of a mining project rather than the current system of twin-track provincial and federal studies.

"The citizens being consulted get consulted twice on the same project and usually there are multiple consultations," Mr. Gratton said. "So by the end of it, by the time they are near the end of the federal process they are saying, 'We told you already, why can't you make a decision?'

"It may have made sense 20 years ago when the provinces weren't there [conducting environmental assessments] but since most of the provinces now are, why not have the ability on a case-to-case basis to say [one EA study] will suffice?"

By the numbers

308,000: Canadians employed in mineral extraction, processing and manufacturing.

$8.4-billion: Taxes and royalties paid to federal, provincial and territorial governments in 2010.

$84.5-billion: The value of metals, non-metals and coal exported in 2010.

19%: Canada's share of international exploration spending.

31%: Rise in value of Canada's mineral production in 2010.

Source: Mining Association of Canada