Education and Training: Varies—see profile
Salary: Average—$21.95 per hour
Employment Outlook: Poor
Definition and Nature of the Work
Metal miners take mineral ore out of the earth from open or surface pits. They take the rest from underground mines. After the ore is collected, cleaned, and sorted, it is ready for use in manufacturing.
In open-pit mining, miners strip away the earth and then tear out the ore with powerful machinery. The open pit refers to the large hole in the ground that the miners make to remove metal ore. Open-pit mining requires fewer workers than underground mining and is therefore more economical. However, miners can use the open-pit mining method only when the ore deposits are close to the surface of the earth.
Dragline operators or bulldozer operators carry out the first step in open-pit mining. These workers scrape away the earth that buries the ore. Then drillers, under the supervision of the drill supervisor, bore several holes in the exposed ore. Next, either drillers or blasters put the right amount of explosives in the holes to blast and loosen the rock. After the explosion scalers check the faces, or sides, of the rock and remove loose pieces that might fall and injure workers. Then crane operators swing drop balls, the heavy weights sometimes used to knock down buildings, against boulders that contain ore. Power shovel operators then remove the ore and load it onto railroad cars or trucks. Sometimes the shovel operators use bucket-wheel excavators that dump ore onto conveyor belts running from the pit to the mill. The pit supervisor directs all stages of work.
Underground mining is more expensive than the more common open-pit mining. Nevertheless, almost all the zinc, silver, and lead in the United States is mined from shafts deep underground. Shaft sinkers drill deep into the ground. Operators then install elevators to transport miners and machinery in and out of the mine and to carry out the ore. Shaft sinkers also dig another deep hole nearby, which serves as the air shaft. Here, fans and blowers draw out fumes and push fresh air down. Fan operators manage the ventilators. From the main elevator shaft miners dig tunnels that follow the direction of the ore seams. Track installers put in railroad tracks or hauling cables that lead back to the elevator. Along the tunnels where ore deposits are best, dynamiting crews bore holes and fill them with explosives. After the blast, scrapers enter the large, room-like spaces, called stopes, and remove any loose rocks from the sides. Muckers remove the debris. Then timber installers strengthen the stopes to make the space safe for miners to enter. The miners use drills, picks, and shovels to break up the loose ore and dump it onto cars or conveyors. In older mines workers must sometimes push full cars into haulage ways. Locomotive operators pull the ore from the stopes to the main shaft. Compressor crews maintain the compressed air machines that drill the rock.
When the ore reaches the mill, it goes through several steps. The mineral preparation engineer directs these steps. First, mill workers crush and remove the rock and debris surrounding the metal ore. Crushers, grinders, and other devices take out waste rock and other materials. This step is called preparation or beneficiation. Workers then concentrate the ore and ship it to smelters for refining.
Education and Training Requirements
Employers generally prefer to hire high school graduates. Most metal miners are trained on the job. Some mining companies offer classroom training to teach skills and safety regulations. Many colleges, especially those in mining areas, offer courses in mining methods. Interested students may earn a certificate in one year, or a two-year associate degree in mine studies. Most programs do not require a high school diploma to enter. However, candidates may have to pass a basic skills test in math and English.
An underground miner must be able to work in tight spaces. Potential candidates must have good reflexes, steady nerves, good health, and the ability to work well with others. Many states require miners to be at least eighteen years old, but workers under eighteen can fill aboveground and office jobs.
Getting the Job
Apply directly to a metal mining company. Many applicants come from mining families and know something about the job beforehand. The more an applicant knows before starting, the better the chances of getting the job.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Experienced workers may advance to jobs in the mine that offer higher pay. A few become supervisors.
The increasing use of machinery in mining is expected to result in a decrease in the demand for unskilled labor. Furthermore, anticipated changes in policies, restrictions, and regulations regarding public land access and payment of royalties are expected to have critical long-term implications on the metal mining industry.
Underground mines are noisy, cold, damp, and dark. The accident rate among both underground and surface miners is high. However, conditions are improving due to stricter safety standards. The work is physically strenuous. The metal miner's workweek averages forty hours. Many metal miners belong to labor unions.
Where to Go for More Information
National Mining Association
101 Constitution Ave. NW, Ste. 500 East
Washington, DC 20001-2133
United Mine Workers of America
8315 Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22031
Women in Mining National
P.O. Box 260246
Lakewood, CO 80226
Earnings and Benefits
Metal miners earn wages, on average, of $21.95 per hour. Workers who belong to labor unions receive health and retirement benefits and paid holidays and vacations.