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“Green Technology” Requires Mined Materials – And A Workforce to Meet Demand

The mining industry is booming, but the industry is digging deep to find highly trained mining engineers.

Across all sectors, from consumer electronics to the defense industry and from automotive manufacturing to aerospace, mineral needs are increasing. In particular, green energy technologies such as electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, grid energy storage, and wind turbines require such metals as copper, lithium, cobalt, rare earths, and manganese. These high-demand minerals cannot be created in a lab. They must be mined.

“If you consider the components of a conventional car versus those of an electric car, the electric car has six times the amount of exotic metal and critical minerals in it,” said Aaron Noble, head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering, part of the College of Engineering.

“This is but one example, though,” Noble said. “Looking further, if we’re going to achieve all the great things we want to accomplish as a society around clean energy production and storage while elevating the standard of living for billions of people, we will need to produce much more mined material. The alarming proposition is that the increase that is needed over the next couple decades is really unprecedented in human history.”

And this doesn’t factor in new technology needs and the increasing constraints and expectations for the minerals industry, Noble said. The new demand for minerals is exciting for the industry, but Noble said keeping up will require a more sophisticated and robust engineering workforce that may not be available.

“Modern mining engineers not only need a strong technical background, but they also must have deep understanding of the environmental, social, legal, ethical, and other factors that define project success,” said Noble.  “In this regard, mining engineering is an exciting multidisciplinary field.”

Despite the number of jobs and career options for mining engineers, college enrollment in this field is low across the country. Only 13 institutions, including Virginia Tech, offer accredited degrees in mining engineering and many are struggling with budget constraints.

“We’ve been seeing this for quite a while, this trend of young people not wanting to enter the mining sector,” said Noble. “Going forward, though, this challenge is going to become an increasingly significant business risk.”

McKinsey & Company research supports that assessment. In an article released in February 2023, research showed 71 percent of mining leaders struggle to meet production targets and strategic objectives due to a talent shortage. Since 2016, the United States has seen a 39 percent drop in mining engineering enrollment, and more than 40 percent of survey respondents ages 15 to 30 would not even consider mining as a career.

This gap between demand and workforce was the topic of a workshop sponsored by the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., in January that Noble attended, along with representatives from other higher education institutions, industry leaders, professional societies, government agencies, and other stakeholders. Participants explored the intersection between industry demand and workforce availability.

There are many factors that contribute to attracting and retaining talent that, according to the McKinsey article, the mining industry needs to address. From an educational perspective, however, higher education is focused on expanding the talent pool by increasing enrollment, which Noble said hinges on two main factors: closing the awareness gap and reframing the industry to create a sense of belonging.


A career in mining may conjure mental images of dark and narrow tunnels, men and women covered in coal dust, and pickaxes swinging into mountain sides to release chunks of black rock. This imagery, informed by a historical understanding of the profession, could not be further from the reality of mining today.

On the Virginia Tech’s “Curious Conversations” podcast, Erik Westman, professor of mining engineering, explained that Virginia Tech mining engineering students historically hailed from Southwest Virginia. They would earn a degree and then return to work in the coal mines. But over the last 20 or 30 years, that shifted. Westman said alumni are working in different industries around the globe and even in space.

“Our students go all over, and they’re in pretty much every state around the country and a number of different countries all around the world and they’re working in many different commodities,” said Westman. “They work in sectors like underground salt up in New York State, surface phosphate down in Florida, specialized minerals in North Carolina. … We had one of our alumni go work at SpaceX. … Of course we need aerospace engineers to get the bot there. But once it’s there, we need the mining expertise to extract efficiently.”

The majority of graduating high school seniors probably are not aware of the career possibilities in mining engineering, and Noble said they aren’t the only ones in the dark.

“According to a survey of high school guidance counselors conducted by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, only 6 percent of respondents indicated they would suggest mining as a career path. However, more than 70 percent said they would if they had more information,” Noble said. “It seems that people aren’t opposed to mining. They simply don’t know anything about it.”

Noble added that many science standards in K-12 schools don’t include information to help educate students about earth science as a career field, and then mining specifically, which is part of the challenge.


Prospective students may not know about mining as a career path, but Noble said even if they do know, misconceptions keep them from seeing themselves in the industry.

“As they always have, young people today want to work in exciting fields. They want to push the bounds of technology and make meaningful contributions to society through their work. The perception of mining – working long hours in a dirty and potentially unsafe environment – is generally not appealing to an 18-year-old,” he said.

Mining may need to be rebranded in a way that appeals to a new generation of miners. From Noble’s interaction with students, their priorities are scholarship funding and affordability, job security, and job sustainability.

Virginia Tech’s generous industry partners and donors help meet their first priority, and the industry has potential to meet the others. The Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering has a 100 percent job placement rate for graduates and a healthy summer internship program where all students seeking an internship can find one. While these opportunities are plentiful, attracting new students requires collaboration between industry and education.

“The mining industry for decades has had a culture of operating behind the scenes,” said Noble. “We want to be the backbone of society, but we don’t want people to know about us, so we’re not telling our good stories in more than a localized, community focused way.”

Noble, a three-time Virginia Tech graduate who grew up in a region known for lead and zinc mining, didn’t know mining was a career until he arrived at college and found the department. Now head of the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering, Noble, Westman, and the entire faculty work to cultivate a learning community that  exemplifies awareness and belonging.

Kathleen Troy, a junior who is co-president of the department’s ambassador program, said her favorite part about the mining program is that they all know each other and everyone is supportive.

“It’s more like a group of friends than just your classmates,” Troy said. “Some people struggle with subjects that others are good at and everyone is willing to help out. It’s great.”

Troy also found this feeling of support and camaraderie in the mining industry. The summer after her first year, Troy interned at a mining company outside of Hagerstown, Maryland. The transformational experience solidified her decision to choose mining and minerals engineering as a major.

“It was what we call a production internship. You were at the mine site every day in the field, and I really just enjoyed the people and how the industry worked,” said Troy. “It was all very relaxed and more like they’re your friends.”

Troy has completed additional internships in the aggregate field, giving her experience with rock, sand, and gravel industries. This summer, she has a metal internship with a copper mine, where she will assist with mine planning, a leadership component that Virginia Tech’s program teaches from day one.

In addition to internships, Troy had the opportunity to participate in mineral processing research with Noble, exploring how minerals are extracted from the rock, which involves chemistry. Troy said mineral processing hadn’t been on her radar as a career path, but she’s considering that route.

Mining and minerals engineering is a diverse field, and at Virginia Tech students like Troy get experience to prepare them for which ever area they’re drawn to.


Higher education institutions are working to bridge the lack of knowledge and to overcome belonging gaps with recruitment events focused on incoming first-year and potential graduate students, but this is one piece of a multifaceted issue. Industry and education need to be aligned, which Noble said was one of the goals of that recent workshop in Washington, D.C.

“We have all these parties with different interests, and we’re all doing our own things and we’re not working together,” said Noble. “It’s not to say we don’t work together. In Virginia, we work very well with our industry advisory board and we have areas where we work with industry very well. But when it comes to the issue of getting new students interested in the mining sector, all the universities work differently, and companies tend to be localized in their outreach. We’re not aligned in our efforts.”

Noble is confident the mining and minerals engineering program at Virginia Tech will grow, but he said his department is one piece of a comprehensive and industry-wide solution.

“The challenge before us is immense. The mining industry has dire need for technology and talent, and the pace of change is unprecedented,” said Noble.  “We have extraordinary capability at Virginia Tech, and I am confident that with our industry partners and academic colleagues, we will rise to the challenge and tackle the problem with the urgency and efficacy that is needed.”


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