Tailings Engineers Wanted…
Seven experts discuss how the mining industry can recruit, train and retain the tailings engineers it so desperately needs
By Carly Leonida, European Editor
The independent review panel that oversaw the investigation into the Mount Polley dam breach in 2014 also stated in their report that “tailings dams are unforgiving systems, in terms of the number of things that need to go right. Their reliability is contingent on consistently flawless execution... in operational diligence in monitoring... and in risk management at every level. All of these activities are subject to human error.”
It has been known for some time that qualified and experienced tailings engineers are vital for the safe design, construction and management of tailings storage facilities (TSFs). However, widely varying regulation of tailings practices across the globe meant that, until recently, there was no way to ensure the provision of proper expertise at every site.
Brumadinho changed this. The event and its coverage in the media forced regulators, industry bodies and mining companies into swift action. The most notable move was the establishment of the Global Tailings Review led by the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM), the UN Environment Program and Principles for Responsible Investment. The resulting Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management (GISTM) published in August 2020 was a milestone for the mining industry.
The standard specifies the requirement for four separate engineering positions: first, an engineer of record (EOR) or designer of record (DOR); roles held either by a senior practitioner at an independent engineering firm or an appropriate in-house engineer. The EOR/DOR is “expected to have a broad overview of all aspects of a tailings dam through its life stages from concept to closure.” Second, is a responsible tailings facility engineer (RTFE), a new role that will be held by a member of the operator team.
An independent tailings review board (ITRB) and/or a senior independent technical reviewer are also needed to oversee design, construction and monitoring as dictated by the tailings facility consequence classification rating. The latter role must be “an independent professional with in-depth knowledge and at least 15 years’ experience in the field.” The standard also requires that TSF operators appoint an accountable executive within their management team. Although the appointee does not need to be an engineer, it is reasonable to expect that person to have understanding and experience in the field.
The stipulation for and emphasis on the importance of these roles can only be a good thing and, overall, the industry has welcomed the standard with open arms. It is fully expected that uptake will not be limited to ICMM’s member companies (operating about 1,200 or 30% of TSFs globally) for whom compliance will become mandatory in stages over the next five years. However, what if we don’t have enough engineers to fulfill those future requirements? What if we barely have enough to fulfill our current tailings management needs to the level required?
Keeping Pace With Demand
Marc Arpin, global manager of SNCLavalin’s Sustainable Mining Group, is based in Montreal, Canada. A geologist by training, Arpin has worked 34 years in the mining industry, and he spoke about the increase in demand the company has seen recently for tailings related services. “Following Brumadinho, we immediately saw a change in awareness with an increase in demand for professional services related to the sound design and management of TSFs,” he said. “There are some specialized services related to TSFs, for example, EOR services, where we noted an almost overnight increase in demand. We’ve also seen a sharp rise in demand for dam break analyses and seismic stability analyses.
“The launch of the GISTM will have a significant impact on how we approach tailings management, and the need for TSF-related expertise is clearly on the upswing to respond to this.” Carl Burkhalter, a geotechnical engineer and partner at NewFields, who has been practicing in mining for nearly 30 years, reported similar: “These recent failures have really woken up the mining community, especially investors, to the issues and the risks [associated with tailings management],” he said. “I’m glad the standard got issued. I think it’s going to be a really positive thing for the industry.”
Prior to 2020, the mining industry was already facing significant competition for skilled people in tailings consulting, both from mine owners and from other sectors. However, with the release of the GISTM, there has been a systematic increase in the number of experienced people required from management, design and site engineering roles to operators on the ground. David Brett, senior technical director for Mine Waste and Water Management at GHD, explained: “As an example, the position of EOR is now formally required by the GISTM. If there are an estimated 7,000 operating tailings dams in the world and one senior engineer can effectively be EOR for four or five dams, we need 2,000 people just for that role. Then we also need the design teams, construction teams and dam operations people… This becomes tens of thousands of skilled people.”
Chapman’s colleague, Andy Haynes, leads Golder’s Mining Business in Canada. He is a practicing tailings engineer and principal at the firm. “The industry is not motivating students to pursue mining, nor tailings, at the rate needed to meet the future demand for suitably experienced skilled professionals,” Haynes said. “Personally, I feel that responsible mining is critical to support the efforts to reduce the contributions to climate change, and to adapting to a changing climate. Mining is, therefore, a critical environmental industry. I believe this climate responsibility message needs to be reinforced so that a higher proportion of students can feel that a career in mining is a valuable contribution to being part of global climate solutions.”
Part of the challenge involves changing the way the mining industry, and especially tailings management, are perceived by young graduates. The engineering of facilities that contain residues is, frankly, not glamorous. However, it is a challenging and exciting field that offers the promise of a long and rewarding career path; many experts in this field have been practicing for 40+ years with no plans yet to retire. One such person is Professor David Williams, director of the Geotechnical Engineering Centre at The University of Queensland and manager of the Large Open Pit Project. Williams was a member of the expert panel that investigated the technical causes of the Brumadinho failure and sits on a number of ITRBs for mines, including Escondida.
“The widespread retrenchments and decline in mining industry recruitment since about 2010, the increasing unpopularity of the industry, and recent well-publicized and catastrophic tailings dam failures, have discouraged graduates from pursuing a career in mining, much less tailings management,” he said. “The intent of the GISTM will not be realized without the availability and recruitment of tailings expertise and interest. Worse still, the ongoing unacceptable rate and impacts of tailings dam failures will not abate and may even increase. This would be catastrophic for the mining industry, and for its role in the supply chain for the goods people demand and aspire to globally.”
Arpin agreed: “In general, reputation is something the mining industry needs to address because it is not attracting enough people. There is a lot to captivate both young and older employees in mining, including more innovative technology than one may think. Mining and mining services companies could do a lot more to entice people into a mining-based career.” SNC-Lavalin has ties with numerous universities and research institutes and has found those to be a successful means of scouting and recruiting talent.
“We have among our staff many former postgraduates who were recommended to us by professors and researchers, and we also like to hire interns because it’s a good way to expose future engineers to our tailings activities and to test their interest and skills early in their career,” Arpin explained. “If they like the experience, we may eventually hire them as permanent employees, and may also support them during their postgraduate studies by keeping them as casual employees, and through our academic support program.”
Professional organizations like the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration in the U.S. are doing much to raise the profi le of tailings engineering through the dedication of conference streams to this topic, as is ICOLD and the Australian National Committee on Large Dams (ANCOLD). “I personally have presented to university students and they seem to be interested and, as chair of the ANCOLD Tailings Dam Subcommittee, we always try to encourage students to annual conferences,” Brett said. “Creating awareness of our ability as tailings practitioners to influence these significant structures with mine operators to develop best outcomes for the project, environment and community through the full lifecycle of design, construction, operations and rehabilitation makes for a really rewarding career.”
While many universities and colleges have shuttered their mining programs in recent years, others are now expanding their scope to incorporate a greater focus on tailings management. Dr. Christopher Bareither is associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University (CSU). He is a driving force in developing the university’s teaching in this area, and said, from an academic perspective, events from the past 18 months and the resulting regulations have brought more awareness that tailings engineers exist and that they are very important. “We need to encourage more students to pursue a career in tailings by making this career path known at the undergraduate and graduate level,” he said. “I believe there are a lot of students who would find tailings engineering fascinating if they knew about the option. At CSU, we introduce the concepts of tailings and mine waste in our undergraduate geotechnical engineering courses and emphasize the broad range of job possibilities that exist in tailings.”
In addition to his academic responsibilities, Bareither also serves as chair of the Tailings and Mine Waste Conference committee in Colorado, which will be held virtually this November. The committee is offering to support students with free registration to the event. “The virtual Tailings and Mine Waste Conference this year presents an invaluable opportunity to engage students around the world, who typically may not have the option to attend the conference. I see this as a win-win-win scenario for students, academic programs and the mining industry,” he said.
New graduates are of course a part of the solution. However, given the significant experience required in some engineering roles and the complexity of TSF structures, it could be sometime before recruits are ready to practice unsupervised. While many senior practitioners continue working long after their expected retirement age thanks to their enthusiasm for the subject they will, eventually, retire. The industry needs to put provisions in place now not just to attract and train new graduates, but to ensure qualified engineers already working in the field receive proper support and are retained.
“It’s a mining-wide problem,” Burkhalter said. “There are a lot of people retiring and not that many people coming in at the midlevels. We’ve really got to do a good job of keeping engineers engaged and in the business. It’s important to make sure the people we do have aren’t getting overworked. “The other thing is, having expertise both on the owner/operator and the consulting side. Mining companies have got to nurture their staff too and make sure they’re compensated and kept happy.”
What Makes a Good
The highly specialized and multifaceted nature of tailings engineering roles mean that most are, for want of a better term, developed “in-house.” They learn the trade by working hands-on under the supervision of senior dam designers and operators as part of a team, and field work is an integral part of this. Most engineers come from a variety of educational backgrounds, predominantly civil, geotechnical and environmental engineering programs. While these do not guarantee that they have the skills required they are, currently, the closest disciplines to tailings management.
Tailings practitioners require knowledge of soil mechanics, water and the environment, combined with mining fundamentals. Specific relevant skills include geotechnical site investigation and laboratory testing techniques, numerical modelling, construction, and instrumentation, which can be obtained through formal education or on-the-job training. “Tailings engineers should have an appropriate degree or masters in geotechnical engineering, or engineering geology, ideally with some specialization in dam engineering and tailings management,” explained Williams. “They should also seek certificated courses in tailings management. Tailings operators should have an appropriate trade qualification, and undertake regular training in TSF operation. Tailings design engineers or EORs, plus third-party reviewers of tailings facilities, and ITRB members can also play a role in training and awareness.”
Arpin added to this: “Designing TSFs requires a multidisciplinary team. The core skills required are civil or geotechnical engineering, geology, earth sciences, hydrology, hydraulics, hydrogeology, geochemistry, but other disciplines might be needed also. For example, mechanical piping, structural process and electrical engineering. “In some cases, you may need nine or 10 different disciplines in a team. But above all, the person who designs these facilities needs to be passionate about it. Sometimes engineers must work in remote locations under harsh climates and in various geographical settings. You have to be resilient and have an adaptable personality.”
Burkhalter agreed, adding: “I think experience with earthworks and mill operations is key, too, especially for RTFEs. On the operator side, new graduates need to get out on site and watch the guys that run the tailings dam. The key thing is learning how to deposit tailings sub-aerially. “As design engineers, we always send our young engineers out to build TSFs as standard. They need to watch how the liner is put in, how the cover is put on the liner… because every dam is different.” Going forward, there will likely be more emphasis on developing well-rounded tailings engineers with traditional skills plus a heightened awareness and understanding of related disciplines and stakeholders.
“It will require the ability to integrate teams and balance stakeholder priorities, with recognition that social and environmental factors will be primary drivers,” Haynes said. “Knowledge of dewatering and material handling, climate change and sustainability will increasingly become cornerstones of a tailings engineer’s skill set. Practitioners will need to be able to effectively communicate plans and designs with a broader set of stakeholders including surrounding communities.” Training approaches will need to be adapted accordingly, and multidisciplinary consultancies may have an advantage, as the ability to provide exposure to other facets of engineering is more readily accessible. “At Golder, we’ve found that our ability to collaborate between disciplines, and draw on the skill sets of colleagues in adjacent disciplines of process engineering, hydrogeology, risk, climate change and community engagement, has benefited not only our tailings engineers, but our clients, and will remain a focus of ours going forward,” Chapman said. Expertise will also be required in data management and use of remote surveying technologies such as drones.
Academic Learning on
Until relatively recently, there was little in the way of formal university training on tailings management, although Williams has been teaching mine waste management to undergraduate and postgraduate students at The University of Queensland for more than 20 years. This course is being replaced by a tailings-specific course on tailings design from next year. Other courses are also emerging… In Canada, the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering now offers a graduate certificate program in Global Mine Waste Management, under the watchful eye of academic director, Professor Dirk Van Zyl.
In June 2020, the University of Western Australia (UWA) announced the creation of Future Tails — an educational program jointly funded by Rio Tinto and BHP. Over five years, the companies will invest $4 million in training, research, education and practice to support tailings and waste management facilities. Led by program director, Professor Andy Fourie, Future Tails will provide education, training, and professional development to senior executives, senior technical personnel, junior engineers and operational staff, both in Australia and internationally. Program participants will be awarded micro-credentials from UWA and there will be opportunities to follow a postgraduate pathway, which will include a masters in tailings management.
In the U.S., CSU has also recognized the need for greater emphasis on tailings and is adapting its offering appropriately. “In academia, we need to provide courses that are tailored to the skills a tailings engineer needs,” explained Bareither. “At CSU, we have been and continue to transition our graduate program in geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering towards a focus on tailings and mine waste. “We created a case-study based course entitled Mining Geotechnics, which covers the broad range of topics engineers encounter in mine waste. Each week, we cover a different topic (e.g., tailings, geochemistry, in situ testing, tailings storage facility planning and design, etc.) whereby I provide a background/overview discussion in the first lecture and then a practitioner provides a case study-based discussion for the second lecture. This course is very well received at the graduate and undergraduate levels and has motivated many students to pursue a career path in tailings.”
Alongside Mining Geotechnics, all of CSU’s graduate courses include aspects of tailings engineering; for example: containment systems for waste disposal; slope stability, seepage, and earth dams; and advanced soil mechanics. “In addition, I will be developing a new course in spring 2021 centered on the topic of tailings engineering,” Bareither said. “Our goal is to create a graduate program that will educate and train students who desire a career in tailings.” In July 2020, CSU, the Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Arizona announced they were joining forces to establish the Tailings Center of Excellence. The center is tasked with developing best practices for sustainable mine waste management and providing the education to uphold them. CSU is also collaborating with Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois on the Tailings and Industrial Waste Engineering Center — nicknamed TAILENG — to research safer waste storage systems and offer technical training.
Bareither is involved with both organizations. “Short courses are being planned for both TAILENG and the Tailings Center of Excellence starting in 2021,” he explained. “These will be developed from core expertise of the academicians involved and key practitioners that have invaluable experience and a passion for education. “TAILENG short courses will be more technical in nature and aimed at folks with a background in engineering (e.g., civil and environmental, geological, geotechnical) who may not have training specific to tailings. On the other hand, Tailings Center short courses will target a broader audience, for example, mill operators, contractors, regulators and business executives. We really want to leverage the best of what the two groups can offer to complement one another and avoid redundancy.”
Will collaborative efforts like these be key in addressing the skills shortage going forward? E&MJ asked. “Absolutely!” Bareither replied. “To address the skills shortage of tailings engineers, we need collaboration. There are excellent programs on tailings and mine waste management offered at UBC, University of Alberta, UWA and The University of Queensland. Our goal is to create, collaborate and complement these existing programs. “The faculty at these other universities are incredible and have outstanding programs. However, there is an absence of any established program in the U.S. Thus, we absolutely see effective collaboration as the only means of improving the pipeline of motivated students entering the workforce as tailings engineers and enhancing the skills of practicing engineers.”
Like Williams, Bareither believes that when it comes to professional training, more responsibility needs to be shared between academicians and practitioners. “Academicians have experience in course development and can effectively teach fundamentals,” he said. “However, practitioners are essential for all professional training as they have the first-hand experience to offer. Thus, collaboration will be the best approach to developing and sustaining an effective professional development program in tailings.”
Online Training Resources
Thanks to COVID-19, many organizations, both professional and academic, have taken their training courses online this year. The six-week Professional Certificate in Tailings Management launched in September 2020 by the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) has seen great success. The course is planned to be run twice yearly, and the first enrollment was closed at 110 global participants. The syllabus enables participants to gain competency and expand their knowledge on the geotechnical, geochemical, governance, closure and socioeconomic considerations of tailings management. It involves six weekly 90-minute live and interactive webinars, each with assessments, requiring a total time commitment of six hours per week.
Williams largely provides the content, delivery and assessment for the course, along with five other tailings experts (including Golder’s Peter Chapman). He sees online resources playing a growing role in the training of tailings engineers going forward. “Online tailings management courses, which can be developed within months by engaging tailings experts for content and delivery, should be expanded and made available globally,” Williams said. “These should have a rigorous assessment component, leading to professional certification. Such courses may be amenable to incorporation into university postgraduate coursework programs, such as graduate certifi- cates, diplomas and masters. However, it takes a number of years to establish such university programs, and this route is not always the one favored by professionals.” Williams has found that online delivery is most effective when it is live, interactive and engaging, in preference to passive online resources.
Phoebe Tan, senior manager for strategy and international at AusIMM, said: “The development of the course was in response to industry feedback requesting a practical, interactive learning experience addressing key issues in effective tailings management. It has been a pleasure working with Professor David Williams and other tailings experts on the development of this course. The strong uptake we’ve seen in our inaugural intake and the request for a second course is evidence of the need for world-class professional development in this area.”
Getting Out on Site
There is also a number of highly regarded, long-standing training offerings for TSF operators, such as that offered by Brett of GHD. Brett has been training tailings engineers and operators for more than a decade. He explained that most people working in tailings design stumble into the field by accident; most hold qualifications in civil or geotechnical engineering, often with experience in water dams. “On the operations side, most management personnel would have mining or metallurgical engineering qualifications, which has a little bit of tailings training, but most do not have much,” he said. “The new guidelines are requiring more civil engineering skills. My main focus is training the operators who are generally trades people (electricians, fitters operating pumps and pipelines). These are the people day-to-day on a dam who can be responsible for tailings discharge and water management.”
Brett oversees a two-day training course hosted by GHD and Water Training Australia. The certificate, issued under the Australian Vocational Education and Training (VET) System, delivers theoretical and practical sessions with inspection training for front line operators and managers. More than 1,000 TSF operators have achieved the qualification thus far. “Tailings is not rocket science, but each site is unique,” he said. “From a dam safety perspective, operators need to understand the designs they have, how the tailings management interacts with the design, potential failure modes, what conditions can set up potential for instability and what can trigger a failure.
“They need to be able to contribute to risk assessments, listen to their technical advisors and to question what they are doing. For my on-site operations training, engineers just need to be interested and involved. They must always wear a ‘black hat’ when inspecting the dams, look for things that don’t seem quite right, and question and report potential issues.”
Many independent engineering firms also offer in-house training programs, whether formal or informal, for their staff. Ongoing learning opportunities are an important part of career progression and are critical in staff retention. GHD has always offered some level of training for its engineers in-house through mentoring, encouraging the presentation of papers at conferences and lunchtime presentations, but Brett said the company is looking to expand that.
“We’re currently planning and developing a more formal internal training course to upskill graduates and existing staff with civil and geotechnical qualifi- cations who are keen to move into tailings in order to expand our resources and meet future demand,” he explained. Golder has developed a multitiered training program, underpinned by its internal practice guidelines and an inhouse Tailings 101 course. “We are currently expanding our internal training to incorporate the additional skill sets that we believe tailings engineers will require going forward,” said Haynes. “We aim to provide our engineers with a consistent program addressing the fundamentals, core competencies, supplemented by specific courses on topics as their knowledge expands. Every employee at Golder has a career development plan, and for our tailings engineers, we use this as an opportunity to create a learning road map for becoming the well-rounded professionals the industry demands.”
In addition to this formal training, the company has established an internal technical community for tailings — currently led by Chapman — that connects and supports its 700+ tailings practitioners. “This global community exchanges ideas, new research and experiences, and allows for the ongoing development of staff and the practice in general,” Chapman said. “We’ve found that this, combined with formal mentoring, supports the transfer of knowledge between seasoned professionals and those just starting out in their career.”
Mentoring opportunities are also important at SNC-Lavalin. “The most important training we offer our engineers is coaching and supervision from seasoned TSF designers,” said Arpin. “We’re lucky enough to have multiple members of staff each with more than 40 years of professional practice. That’s really a blessing for our young engineers who can benefit from their knowledge and expertise. “We also offer young tailings engineers the opportunity to be involved in projects from inception to construction. Every engineer wants to see his or her design being eventually implemented; it’s a legitimate aspiration.
“On top of that, we provide support to attend training provided by the industry and universities, training on different software, and we support participation in conferences, workshops, seminars and knowledge sharing opportunities as much as we can.” Burkhalter reported similar at New- Fields: “We do a lot of in-house training and mentorships,” he said. “If an engineer doesn’t naturally gravitate toward somebody senior, then we assign a person who can take them under their wing. “We also are looking into expanding our training around instrumentation and remote sensing technologies. And we put a lot of focus on retention, because once our engineers are trained up, we don’t want them to leave.”
Staying for the Long Haul
How can retention be promoted? “Good pay and good working conditions,” Burkhalter said. “Pay is not everything, but it’s still an important element. “For a lot of young engineers, the work-life balance is more important and it’s hard to achieve that at a mine camp in the middle of South America, say. Good companies have setups that include extra- curricular activities and decent rotation schedules… things like that.” As an industry, it needs to work out how to better share liability surrounding TSF design, construction and management because, despite best efforts and hopefully a significant reduction in the number of failures going forward, accidents will still occur. Currently, a lot of the liability for these events lies with the EOR or DOR and that can be off-putting for engineers considering a career in the field.
“That was a key topic at the 2019 Tailings and Mine Waste conference in Vancouver,” said Burkhalter. “If you work for a big mining company as an EOR, RTFE or accountable executive, you’ve probably got back up behind you should anything go wrong. But there are a lot of small consulting companies for whom the price of insurance is constantly being increased, and it gets out of control. “It’s not just the engineering firm that should hold all the risk; the operator and regulators and the state should have some responsibility in that, too.”
Given the shortage and growing need for tailings engineers, fast tracking of talent can also play an effective role in retention. “To keep people happy, they need recognition, and salary is not the only way to do that,” said Arpin. “Something we [SNC-Lavalin] have been doing is fast-tracking the development and promotion of our best talents. So, as young engineers make their way up the organization, they are given new responsibilities if we see that they are capable. They have direct contact with clients, and they are exposed to increasingly challenging projects even at a young age if they demonstrate their capacity. “We should not wait to promote good talent if we want to avoid the generational gap we talked about. I really believe that as an employee, as a young engineer, when you feel that you have your manager’s trust and that trust is pulling your career up, it’s really addictive.
“But also, it’s very important that we create a respectful, motivating and inspirational working environment where everybody feels that she or he is an integral part of the team. We may have the best jobs, the best salary, the best projects, but if we don’t have a good working atmosphere, we will lose people.” In his spare time, Arpin is a keen marathon runner. It’s an apt analogy for a career in tailings engineering because, if you have the skills, the ambition and a passion for the subject, it can offer a very rewarding and long-term career path.
“One of our most senior engineers has been with the company for 41 years — his whole career,” Arpin said. “We have another who recently retired after 45 years in tailings management. I think the final word on this… it’s about passion. “The mining industry is a great place to work. And it’s a really technological, stateof- the-art industry, despite what people may think. It’s clear to me that it’s a very interesting career path for young people.”