Geoscientists between a rock and a hard place

by Richard Roberts, HighGrade | Aug 09, 2013
Despite, or maybe even because of, technology advances, the ‘exploration industry’ faces a very challenging future...

DISTRESSING statistics on jobless rates and poor job prospects for geoscientists that came out of the Australian Institute of Geoscientists last month hide the true depth of the malaise in the field, according to a number of experienced industry people contacted by in the past fortnight. Despite, or maybe even because of, technology advances, the ‘exploration industry’ faces a very challenging future when, by all accounts, making significant new discoveries will be tougher than ever.

“Exploration geology as a profession is unrecognisable now compared to what it was 30 years ago,” said respected geochemist and 2012 Geological Society of Australia Gibb Maitland Medal winner, Scott Halley.

The consultant who runs his own firm, Mineral Mapping, said he believed the industry had become “de-skilled in Geology 101”.

“In the 1980s, explorers would probably spend 75% of their time doing geological mapping, logging core or geochemical sampling. I’ll bet that the majority of geologists now spend less that than 10% of their time looking at rocks.

“Basic mapping is now mostly outsourced to specialist mappers, and most logging is done by contract loggers. In many cases, resource models are built by people who have not even seen the rocks they are modelling. Drilling programs are designed by people who have not looked at previous drill holes,” he said.

“Thirty years ago even mid-tier companies would have in-house expertise, like a company geophysicist, geochemist or structural geologist. Now there are remarkably few of these people in staff positions, even in major companies. Decisions about planning and implementing specialist surveys are routinely made by staff with no expertise in these fields.”

Dr Scott Halley (second from right) regularly runs applied geochemistry courses for the Master of Economic Geology program at the University of Tasmania.

Halley’s concerns were echoed by others not so much dismayed by the thousands of their colleagues unemployed or under-employed at the end of June, according to AIG data – they’ve experienced the casual way the industry handles the ebb and flow of geoscience personnel needs many times – as by some of the underlying trends altering the professional landscape in which they all must work, and try to achieve success, in future. Their fears encased vital messages for those who intend to continue pursuing careers in mineral exploration; those currently without jobs and those still in them.

The biggest worry, say experienced hands, is not the vast number of new geoscience jobs created in the industry’s latest boom, followed by the almost inevitable contraction, but what the past decade or so has taught the latest generation about exploration and how that knowledge might shape the industry’s future.

“I think we should be quite concerned about the future in Australia,” Halley said.

“This is a very mature exploration region, and future discoveries are going to be deeper and more difficult to detect, and therefore need a higher skill level. At the same time we are losing many of the basic skills.

“Will the advances in technology make up for the loss of skills?”

While there is much genuine optimism about the technologies already favouring exploration programs and mine geologists, and those technologies expected to have a bigger influence in years to come, answers to the rhetorical question above are dominated by references to skills deficits – and frustration at the way things have been allowed to unfold.

“So many geologists in recent years were able to sidestep that period of time in their careers where they would normally be field workers, mapping, rig supervising or otherwise involved in field-based activity,” said Michael McShane, senior geologist with AMC Consultants.

“Since about 2006, many geos have been promoted to supervisory and managerial positions, without the ‘apprenticeship’ in the field. Therefore, soon and now, the mines and exploration offices are manned by geologists without this experience and knowledge. This is already the case, and will get worse in the next few years.”

Bruce Godsmark, principal geology consultant at Mining Plus, said mining geoscience professionals couldn’t get by these days without geostatistics know-how, and in exploration nothing could replace “boots on the ground experience”.

“There has been an overall tendency for geos to be soft wingers who can’t hack real field exploration conditions,” Godsmark said.

“Everyone wants to be an office geo but they need to gain real experience first. The best training is in the field doing it. You cannot do a course and suddenly become a better geologist. As a geologist you must go to multiple mines and work on multiple exploration projects and build up a CV of on ground experience.

“That is why the JORC code explicitly states to be competent you must have five years of relevant experience.

“Geologists belong in the field for the first 20 years of their careers.”

Few seem likely to follow this course in future, though it depends how you define ‘in the field’.

“There is a great future for a select number of geoscientists that are well rounded in both technical and business skills,” experienced geologist and CEO of busy Australian mineral explorer Emmerson Resources, Rob Bills, said.

“The trends are clear – most of the heavy lifting in exploration and discovery will be by junior to mid- sized companies that invest heavily in R&D. These companies need to develop exploration as a business in order to attract funding.”

Of course ‘exploration as a business’, which sounds simple enough, is clearly a tricky concept for an industry well-versed in the use of the ‘exploration as a lottery’ pitch.

AIG president Kaylene Camuti, in lamenting the multiple market failures affecting her geoscientist colleagues, said the recent marked decline in exploration activity – measured in people working in the field, and dollars being spent – created a situation “where the resources industry’s future viability is under growing threat”.

“Only a small proportion of all discoveries ultimately become viable, sustainable operations after a number of years of intense geological, engineering, environmental and social impact studies,” she said.

In other words, the odds are already against the people, technology and business models aligned to tackle the exploration challenge. Bills said better exploration business plans, built around success/failure probability analyses, and project gates – basically, “ensuring shareholder funds are spent in the best manner” – were vital to attracting life-sustaining investment and arguably too few junior and mid-range companies were doing this.

In fact, there seems to be plenty of evidence that exploration, be it greenfield or brownfield, remains a business within a business at many companies.

“It’s very common to have geoscience professionals in technical silos, not understanding or in some instances possibly not caring how their observations, interpretations and outputs affect the rest of the mining value chain,” said Jeff Elliott, managing director of CSA Global.

“For a project to have the best chance of commercial success it requires an integrated [team] approach where all aspects of the project are considered and all disciplines are consulted – or at least their input is considered by people who are competent enough to make the decisions. Many, very capable technical people lack commercial vision or fail to communicate in a way that can be understood by other stakeholders [such as investors].

“There is also a bit of a hand-out culture – what can you do for me … which comes off the back of a boom where it was a seller’s market – instead of, this is what I can do for you, or this is my value proposition.

“People have started to realise that a job is to be valued and they are expected to contribute value; it is now a buyer’s market. This requires commercial and communication skills.”

Former mine geologist and now software salesman with Mintec, Mark Gabbitus added that in his experience, “people still work in site-based silos and don’t think about the cost to the business downstream based on decisions they made in their area”.

In Perth, Western Australia, recently respected BHP Billiton geometallurgist and mentor to a generation of geoscience professionals, Kathy Ehrig highlighted the same cycle. “In the real world,” she said, “drilling to support geological knowledge and confidence in a resource to a level suitable for a pre-feasibility study usually starts at the same time as the pre-feasibility study for mine planning and process design. The same is true for the feasibility study, and even into production.

“The entire project team commences their individual studies at the same time”.

On the related subjects of geoscience skills shortages and mentoring, Gabbitus observed that a lack of experience was a problem at many sites.

“The move to put senior people in city-based roles and to have shorter FIFO swings means that young geoscientists are not getting as much mentoring as I got when I started out,” he said.

Xstract Consultants head of consulting and principal consultant Mark Noppe said practical mentoring and development was vital to bridge the gap between exploration and mine geology theory and practice; in fact, between “good or best practice”.

“There remains a deficit in this area with experienced professionals either in short supply or their time to provide this guidance is in short supply,” he said.

This despite the increasing influence of technology which is supposed to give people in the industry more time to devote to the most important tasks.

On the surface this would appear to be the case.

“What is helping us focus at the moment … are the advances in geological modelling software and their applications,” a gold company chief, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

“I will show you what the consulting firm we’re using has recently done in taking over 200 years of data and then in a period of just five weeks compile it and turn out the most amazing targeting exercise that I have ever seen. We have drilled eight holes into the targets so far and have had free gold in every hole.

“The key was the power of the software and [a specialist consultant’s] ability to really use it in the way that it should be used. I have been truly impressed.

“Exploration is getting deeper and more expensive. The continued development of computer modelling and geophysics tools is, I think, very important to the progression of the Australian mining industry.”

Gabbitus, the geologist/technologist, observed: “There has always been a lot of data generated in mining but we are starting to find it is being entered into databases more and more. Not much is being done with this data at present but people are starting to realise that it is important and useful. Think of the old hand drawn maps and sections that live in cabinets at every mine site around the world. If this data could be extracted and made available to all users it would save a lot of time, effort and money remapping or sampling holes. Some companies do this well but better use of the data you have will become a requirement for any company that wants to become successful in the future.”

Like most things, though, there is another side to the story. A renowned geoscience specialist and advocate of modern exploration technology nonetheless cautioned: “The industry is getting mesmerised by data mining and seemingly magical answers computers are spitting out from masses of data.”

His and other views on the value of technology, and also the further skills challenges it presents, are contained in a companion report in this edition of

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