The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently prepared a report outlining the mining industry’s employment situation and the primary influences affecting it. Following is a synopsis of that report.

Employment in mining is projected to decrease. The growing U.S. and world economies will continue to demand larger quantities of the raw materials produced by mining, but the increased output will be able to be met by new technologies and new extraction techniques that increase productivity and require fewer workers.

Wage and salary employment in mining is expected to decline by 14 percent through the year 2018, compared with 11 percent growth projected for the entire economy. Mining production is tied closely with prices and demand for the raw materials produced, and as prices for oil, gas and metals have risen rapidly in recent years, production and employment in the industry also have grown. In the short term, employment may fluctuate due to changes in prices, but over the course of the projections period, technological advances will increase productivity and cause employment declines in the mining industry as a whole.

Petroleum and natural gas exploration and development in the United States depends upon prices for these resources, and the size of accessible reserves. Stable and favorable prices are needed to allow companies enough revenue to expand exploration and production projects. Rising worldwide demand for oil and gas – particularly from developing countries such as India and China – is likely to cause prices to remain elevated and generate the needed incentive for oil and gas producers to continue exploring and developing oil and gas reserves. U.S. reserves of oil and gas should remain adequate to support continued production through 2018. However, environmental concerns, accompanied by strict regulation and limited access to protected federal lands, continue to have a major impact on this industry. Restrictions on drilling in environmentally sensitive areas and other environmental constraints should continue to limit exploration and development – both onshore and offshore.

In addition to resource availability, new production technologies also will impact employment in the industry. New drilling and extraction techniques allow for more efficient production from a reduced number of drill sites. As a result, employment in oil and gas extraction is expected to decline by 16 percent through 2018. However, changes in policy could expand exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas in currently protected areas, potentially boosting employment.

Demand for coal will increase as coal remains the primary fuel source for electricity generation. Although environmental concerns exist regarding coal power (burning coal releases pollutants and carbon dioxide), few alternatives exist on a scale large enough to meet the fuel demand of utilities. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, but coal power plants equipped with scrubbers reduce this disadvantage, and natural gas prices have been more volatile than coal prices in recent years. Future increased use of nuclear power or renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, could reduce demand for coal, but over the projection period, neither is expected to increase rapidly enough to contribute significantly to U.S. energy supplies.

Environmental concerns will continue to affect mining operations. Increasingly, government regulations are restricting access to land, and restricting the type of mining that is performed in order to protect native plants and animals, and decrease the amount of water and air pollution. As population

growth expands further into the countryside, new developments compete with mine operators for land, and residents are increasing their opposition to nearby mining activities. These concerns, together with depletion of the most accessible coal deposits in the eastern United States, will result in a shift in coal production.

Coal mining will increase in the central, and particularly the western, United States, and decrease in the east. Overall, coal mining employment is expected to grow by 4 percent as rising demand for coal is coupled with limited productivity gains from more efficient and automated production operations.

Employment in mining for metal ores is expected to decline by 10 percent through 2018. Because metals are used primarily as raw materials by other industries, such as telecommunications, construction, steel, aerospace and automobile manufacturing, the strength of the metal ore mining industry is greatly affected by the strength of these industries. Most metals are sold and bought in a world market, so demand stems not only from domestic industries, but also from fast-growing industries in developing countries. Demand from these countries has caused prices for many metals to increase substantially in recent years. This has caused U.S. mining companies to expand production at existing mines and restart production at some mines that were closed when low metal prices made them unprofitable. However, in the long term, the potential stabilization of prices together with many of the same environmental concerns as in coal mining will cause employment in metal ore mining to decline.

Nonmetallic mineral mining should experience little change in employment. Although demand will continue to increase for crushed stone, sand and gravel used in construction activities, advances in mining technology will require fewer workers for operation and maintenance of new mining machines. Like the metal ore mining industry, the nonmetallic mineral mining industry is influenced by the strength of the industries that use its outputs in the manufacture of their products. Nonmetallic minerals are used to make concrete and asphalt for road construction and also as materials in residential and nonresidential building construction. 

Transportation costs for stone, sand and gravel are high, so mining of these materials is spread across the country, making it not as susceptible to industry consolidation. This geographical spread, together with the small size of many mines, also causes some mines to operate only during warm months. Many workers laid off during the winter find jobs in other industries and must be replaced when the mines reopen. Jobs in nonmetallic mineral mining attract many migrant workers and those looking for summer employment.

Despite an overall decline in mining industry employment, there will be job opportunities in most occupations due to the need to replace workers who leave the industry. A large number of workers, particularly in the professional occupations, will become eligible for retirement in the coming years, and some companies may have trouble coping with the loss of many experienced workers to retirement at a time when the industry is expanding production. At the same time, past declines in employment in the industry have dissuaded potential workers from considering employment in the industry, and many colleges and universities have shut down programs designed to train professionals for work in mining. Employment opportunities will be best for those with previous experience and with technical skills, especially qualified professionals and extraction workers who have experience in oilfield operations and who can work with new technology.