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After the storm - thoughts on a career in minerals exploration

By Ken Witherly

My career in the minerals exploration industry started with entry into university in the fall of 1967. Within a year of starting a BSc program, I had defined that a degree in Geophysics and Physics was something I could achieve with the time and resources I had available. Also, it seemed the minerals exploration industry was interested in people with these skills set, at least enough to offer summer positions starting at the end of 2nd year. By working for three summers including the final one when my class work had finished in May 1970, I had obtained both a BSc and built up one year of applied experience in conducting minerals surveys for two companies working throughout BC and the Yukon. For my final summer’s employment, I applied to five companies; I recall three did not even respond to my inquiry, one wrote a letter saying they had no positions but the fifth, the group whom I had worked for in the summer of my second year, offered me a position for the summer. Part way through the summer, the head of the company’s exploration group that was based in the US, offered me a full time job and a ‘sign-on’ bonus of a month long tour of the companies operations in the US. The local manager of the office in Vancouver, also an American, mentioned that he had never had such a tour of company operations. This person later became my father-in-law. I stayed with this company (it went through several owners but the part I was employed by remained intact) for almost 30 years.

During this time, there were was what I came to understand much later as economic cycles which washed over the industry and my employer but these effects always appeared minor inside the organization I worked for. Granted, cuts to staff and budgets happened from time to time but never at the scale we could see happening outside our organization. Some of course left the company of their own accord but my career by and large seemed ‘blessed’ and I was able to basically pick the focus of what I wanted to do in an organization that basically spanned the world. The only limitation was one I came to recognize later in my career that I made my supervisors somewhat nervous, I assumed by my independent approach to how I worked to achieve what I pursued and this earned me a reputation as ‘talented but not management material’. This was the best call that could have been made as it allowed me the freedom and what were often unlimited resources, to achieve things never-before done in the field of exploration geophysical technology.

When I looked back, I saw I had enjoyed a most amazing career but one which is likely never again to be possible to expect companies to support, certainly not in the minerals industry. Having worked as an independent consultant/entrepreneur for almost 20 years, I have been able to able to continue pursuing the development and application of leading-edge technology to a far wider range of clients than I ever supported inside my employer.

In mid-2015, I was asked to by a colleague to give a talk to a group of university students in the geology department of a local (Denver) university. The exploration industry was still in a very depressed state and so as to give some sense of conditions getting better hopefully before too long, I called my presentation ‘After the Storm’. However, after building and making the presentation, I took a greater interest in just how the cycles in the industry affected the profession and impacted the employment opportunities for new graduates. Specifically, what new professionals should expect and some suggestions as to how to accommodate a work environment that can be both chaotic and very rewarding at the same time.

Experience is critical - While the academic record one builds attending school is important, it is a largely a testament as to what you know whereas industry experience is often seen as more tangible evidence for possible employers with which to judge what you can do for them. Performance in the real world is of course a blending of both knowledge and experience but a person’s ability to design and carry out work programs rapidly becomes the primary criteria most employers will use to judge a candidates suitability for an employment position. If this is not enough, diversity of employment is likely the second most important aspect a new professional needs to be aware of. This may require difficult early career choices to be made where steady employment doing a repetitive task has to be weighed against seeking a new but important skill set possibly with a change of compensation or working conditions not as attractive as in the established role.

Support of a significant other - Historically, many geoscientists had work routines which required long periods away from a residence or home. If a family was involved, they might not have the geoscience partner around for possibly months at a time. My father-in-law worked overseas assignments six months at a time which made his absence akin to what military families are expected to endure. In my major company career, for the first 15 years I was likely absent 35% of the time although not continually. My spouse actually frequently told me that is was often easier to deal with our two sons when I was away as when I returned, established schedules were disrupted and had to be re-established when I inevitably left again. The nature of field work, often in remote locations, still requires significant absences and puts pressure on other family members that need to be recognized. The lack of explicit ‘tells’ does not mean there is not underlying stress created by a partner cycling in and out of the home on a regular (or irregular) basis. Best to anticipate and work to create a sustainable balance between work and home.

Mentors - The value of mentors in the geoscience workspace is likely more important now than it was in days of large geoscience departments inside mining companies. The reason being that when there were a number of peers with your experience level, you often could simply ‘follow the crowd’ and through a combination of direct instructions from a supervisor and seeing how your peers fared, you could ‘figure out’ what sort of behaviors the company liked and those it did not endorse. Now, the new geoscientist could well have a much smaller cadre to work with and there may be no full time employee of the client in the work party. This implies greater autonomy but as well, fewer more senior people who can be asked for advice. Therefore having a mentor to bounce ideas and questions off can be very helpful. While there may appear to be a lot of potential candidates for a person looking for a mentor, the mentee should spend time to define what sort of advice they are after and discuss this with potential candidates.

Managing the “soft environment” - The soft skills can be defined as “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people “ . The term “soft environment” refers to the work environment that relates to the people-side of the work place and not the formal technical part. Success in managing the soft environment can be a strong determinate to the technical environment working satisfactorily to the point if one fails to function properly, then so likely will the other. The work places now are also less regimented and company staff often fewer in numbers so even though companies will almost always have policies governing safety, social conduct, these guidelines can get posted on the mess hall door and forgotten about. One exception is likely safety as almost all publicly traded companies realized their potential liabilities if safety on the work site were ignored. While important, other issues such as bullying and sexual harassment are much harder to deal with.

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