Star 200: Southern Arizona's big companies finding it hard to fill skilled jobs at Arizona mines

Asarco, Freeport both join with AZ schools to train new workers
2013-04-28T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:49:19Z Star 200: Southern Arizona's big companies finding it hard to fill skilled jobs at Arizona minesTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A second straight year of dropping copper prices has done little to slake Southern Arizona's two biggest mining employers' thirst for new workers.

Asarco and Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold say that with copper prices still well above historic levels, they're continuing to look out of state - and in Asarco's case, out of the country - to fill vacancies for skilled positions. The companies are working with universities and community colleges in Arizona to try to ensure a steady future supply of workers.

Freeport says it's seeking fixed plant mechanics, technicians, material-handling operators, supervisors, mining engineers, geotechnical engineers and metallurgists. Asarco says it's seeking many of the same kinds of employees, plus geologists, electrical workers, millwrights, plant operators, supervisors, boilermakers, instrument technicians, truck drivers and environmental engineers.

As a sign of problems in finding skilled employees, the multinational, Tucson-based Asarco traced a slight decline in its workforce from 2,368 in 2012 to about 2,300 this year to this problem. Regionally, there is a shrinking pool of qualified workers to fill available mining jobs, said Tom Aldrich, an Asarco vice president.

That's due in part to last year's reopening of the Pinto Valley copper mine in the Miami area in Gila County, which resulted in the hiring of about 650 people, Aldrich said.

Asarco had 129 Arizona vacancies in early April, slightly fewer than its year-ago total of 140.

Freeport reported a growing Arizona workforce on its rolls - 5,463 today, compared with 5,068 a year ago - and more job openings, with 675, compared with 570 a year ago.

Rosemont Copper, which hopes to get its final permits to start constructing the proposed Rosemont Mine later this year, has about 40 employees today. For the future, "we don't have a crystal ball" as to whether the company will have to look out of state for employees when and if the mine is up and running with an estimated 500 employees, said Jan Howard, a Rosemont Copper spokeswoman. The company's top priority will continue to be to hire locally first, Howard said.

So far, the company hasn't had any problems hiring local employees or former Arizonans seeking to return, and it doesn't foresee a problem in that area, "based on the thousands of job applications and inquiries we've already received from throughout the local area," Howard said.

The price of copper, which usually drives the industry's job prospects, has dropped into the $3.25-$3.50-per-pound range this year from the $3.70-$3.80 range a year ago. A year earlier, in 2011, it was bumping against and occasionally exceeding $4-per-pound. But today's prices still far exceed those of the late 1990s and early 2000s when copper companies were laying off workers by the hundreds. From the late 1980s until around 2005, copper prices hung below $2 per pound.

The companies' continued search for workers comes as a recent National Academy of Sciences report concluded that the future is bright for workers in the mining and energy industries. Demand for workers "at all levels" in these industries will remain strong, and the jobs will continue paying well, said the report, released in late March.

At the same time, the need is growing in these industries for workers and prospective employees with strong foundations of education in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM for short, the new report said.

"The current pipeline of STEM-capable students and workers is inadequate to meet workforce needs," the academy report said.

Industry-education partnerships, particularly at community colleges or in the first two years of higher education, have emerged as critical to the nation's future in mining and energy, the report said.

Freeport officials said the company works in several ways with local high schools, community colleges and universities, including providing scholarship opportunities to full-time undergrads enrolled in community colleges with which it partners. It also provides scholarships to sophomores, juniors and seniors majoring in engineering, science or in business-related career paths at universities with which the company partners.

The company has partnerships with Pima Community College here, as well as with Yavapai Community College in Prescott, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and a number of other four-year universities nationally, Freeport said. The company also recruits college interns, and projects it will get more than 250 summer interns this year.

For its part, Asarco is working with Yavapai College to develop a pipeline for future craftsmen at its various mines and related operations, the company's Aldrich said. Asarco is in the second year of sponsoring students enrolled in Yavapai's two-year associates of applied science degree program for electricians, diesel mechanics and mill-repair technicians.

Asarco covers the students' full costs for tuition, books and dormitory living during the school year. Then, the students work at Asarco during summer breaks and other school breaks until graduating, to meet their requirement of 900 hands-on hours on the job to get their degrees.

Once they've graduated, the students are committed to work at Asarco for at least two years, Aldrich said.

As of today, very few Arizona community colleges or vocational schools focus on training students for some of the key jobs where Asarco currently has trouble finding people, Aldrich said. These include workers qualified in electrical or instrumentation work, as diesel mechanics and or as millwrights. Yavapai College's Career and Technical Education Center is Arizona's one exception, he said.

Pima Community College in Tucson offers workforce training programs in automotive, aviation, machine-tool and electronic-assembly technology as well as welding. But Asarco indicated that's not enough to meet its needs.

"Other community colleges, especially in the Tucson area, tend to have coursework and programs that are focused on feeding students into the university system," Aldrich said. "Although they do offer some automotive classes, woodworking and welding, these programs are not robust enough to meet our needs in mining."

The UA is doing "everything possible" to increase enrollment in its mining program, Aldrich said, but the path to training skilled workers for this industry starts much earlier.

"Across the state of Arizona, there is increased emphasis on STEM education," he said. "It will take some time, but hopefully this emphasis will produce more students interested in pursuing careers in science and engineering."

Rosemont Copper, however, said it has worked with PCC since 2010, when it established 10 annual, $2,000 scholarships there - a number it has since expanded to 18. They're primarily focused in the STEM areas, spokeswoman Howard said.

It's also participated for several years in a work-study program at San Miguel High School in Tucson. It has two college interns and anticipates expanding its internships when it starts operating, Howard said.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

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