Copper miners scramble for workers to supply green energy transition

Freeport’s Morenci mine in Arizona. Credit: Wikipedia

Copper mining giants are scrambling to attract and retain workers, especially in the United States, amid rising global demand for the red metal for the green energy transition.

While regulatory push back and water supply have been among the mining industry’s historical challenges, access to talent has emerged as another worry.

With workers opting for jobs that are less physically demanding jobs and not in far-flung locales, attracting mining talent is now a key problem for the industry, facing a wave of retirements in the next decade. Workers are needed with skills to build and run mines producing lithium, nickel, copper and other metals to feed the green energy transition.

Freeport-McMoRan Inc’s US copper production slipped at the end of 2022 and the company expects it to dip 1%this year due to a lack of talent at a time of rising copper demand.

The Phoenix-based company, which has more than 1,000 US job openings, has boosted already-lucrative salaries and offered one-time bonuses to lure and retain workers, but has begun using contractors to run at least one US mine, chief executive Richard Adkerson told Reuters on the sidelines of the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston.

“It is affecting our operations to a degree and affecting our expansion plans. We’re just trying to make our work as attractive to people as we can,” said Adkerson, who has run the company since 2003. “But it’s not an insurmountable problem.”

Freeport has boosted its outreach to college-age students and waived baccalaureate requirements for some mine supervisory positions, he said. Freeport has also expanded its outreach to women, highlighting that several of the company’s largest North American mines are led by women and that Kathleen Quirk, Freeport’s president, runs the company alongside Adkerson.

Freeport, which operates mines in many rural locations, has also in recent years built more gymnasiums, grocery stores, retail outlets and related facilities at mine sites for workers and their families.

Freeport peer Rio Tinto Ltd has more than 4,000 employees in Utah, where the company runs the Kennecott copper mine. But Rio also aims to open the Resolution Copper mine, a massive underground operation that will require thousands of new employees, posing a recruitment challenge for the Anglo-Australian company.

“We do need to step up on partnerships with universities in Utah and Arizona and the traditional schools like Colorado (School of Mines), to make sure that (talent is there) in the future,” said Baatar.

(By Ernest Scheyder; Editing by David Gregorio)


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