Mining boom trips on driller shortage

There aren’t enough drillers in the Yukon. The nebulous notion of a ‘skilled labour shortage’ across Canada has taken firm root in…

There aren’t enough drillers in the Yukon.

The nebulous notion of a ‘skilled labour shortage’ across Canada has taken firm root in the territory this summer, crippling the mining sector’s short-term ambitions.

“We’ve hear the comment from just about every drilling company and exploration company using drills that they just can’t seem to find drillers to supply all the jobs,” said John Witham, chair of the Yukon Chamber of Mines and CEO of Kaska Minerals Corp.

“We’ve heard the same thing from the Northwest Territories and British Columbia, the two places we exchange information with.”

Preliminary investment estimates in Yukon mining exploration were upwards of $100 million at the start of the 2006 exploration season.

At his most optimistic, Witham anticipated $70 million would be invested in “grassroots exploration” and another $45 million in advanced projects.

“Whether or not that all gets spent this year as a result of the slower pace of drilling remains to be seen.

“I don’t think it will limit the desire to spend that money. It might make it difficult to actually spend it.”

Each diamond drill typically needs two trained professionals, a foreman and a helper, to properly probe for ore samples.

Drills typically run day and night, in which case four skilled workers are needed — a two-person crew working a 12-hour day and a night shift crew working the same.

But drillers in the Yukon are spread too thin, “running one shift on a drill,” so drills are only turning 12 hours with a day crew, rather than 24 hours, said Witham.

Consequently, drilling operations are taking twice as long.

“It’s a real hardship for the drilling company and the exploration company because the camp costs don’t change,” said Witham. “The cost of (keeping) the drilling company’s equipment at the mine doesn’t change.

“It makes it expensive to drill.”

There are 22 drills turning in the Yukon, requiring 88 drillers, but the territory is consistently short by about 20 workers, said Witham.

Three drills are operating on the various properties of Logan Resources Ltd., searching for gold, copper and uranium.

They’re not enough, said CEO Seamus Young.

“I’m terribly disappointed,” Young, a veteran Yukon prospector, said Wednesday from Logan’s Vancouver offices.

“To date, we have accomplished about 10 per cent of our total goals.

“We should have at least 75 per cent.

“There are not enough drillers, and the drillers that we have are not experienced.

“We have spent a lot of money and got very little for it, so far.”

Logan has invested about $2.5 million in exploration in the Yukon this summer, he estimated.

Its main drilling project is located near Eagle Plains, and the company has three other exploration projects in the Klondike.

“Our investors are expecting news from us that they’re not going to get. And we have option payments and guarantees for helicopter time for the summer.

“The helicopters are getting the time, and we’re getting no production.

“There’s no way in the world we’ll achieve our goals by the end of the summer, unless we can get another company … and even then we wouldn’t be able to achieve it.

“This will carry on next year, but in the meantime we’ve gone through a hell of a budget, and we’ll have to find some more money for next year.”

Exploration companies typically hire a drilling company on contract, but they are busy around the world, said Young.

“I have tried to get drillers, personally, out of South Africa, out of Europe, out of Scandinavia, without having success.”

Drillers are in such hot demand that companies can successfully offer better incentives for more experienced workers, he explained.

“Some of the companies are paying two-dollar-per-foot for a bonus, and some of them are paying 50 cents a foot.

“A 50-cent bonus isn’t going to get the best driller.

“The good drillers are making $7,000 every two weeks. You’re better off paying a good driller $7,000 than a bad one $3,000.

“They’re all making $26 an hour or thereabouts, and time-and-a-half or double time after eight hours.”

Exploration started to slow down in 1996, and labour has yet to recover, he said.

Witham agreed that the driller shortage the Yukon is currently experiencing is the product of an industry crash 10 years ago.

“During the last exploration slowdown the skilled drillers all got old and retired,” Witham explained with a rueful laugh.

“Not enough young people were interested in getting into the industry (because) there was no industry to get into for several years in Canada.

“Most of the drilling was happening offshore.”

The chamber trained eight people in diamond drilling last year with the Yukon mining training trust fund, he said.

But training facilities across Canada can’t keep up with demand.

And not just for drillers, said Witham. Geologists, geophysicists, exploration technologists and line cutters are also increasingly needed.

“It got busy really, really quickly, and I think it’s going to be a sustained boom here for the next six to 10 years.”

A new initiative, the Yukon mine training association, should be available in the fall.

It’s a joint effort from industry, the chamber, the Klondike Placer Miners Association and First Nations that will tap the $300,000 training trust fund in order to be “in the business of training people,” said Witham.

“It makes it much easier for industry to hire local, because they can get the funding to train people in situ.

“It’s unfortunate that the mining boom happened so quickly. We though we might have a little more breathing space than we did.

“It’s a funny thing to hear a chamber of mines person saying the boom happened so quickly, but it literally overtook us in the formation of training implementation and the actual funding of that association.”

But an initiative like the training association is exactly what the industry needs, said Young.

“The Yukon government should be teaching drillers all winter. Rent a big warehouse someplace and put a drill in there, and start drilling holes in the floor.

“They should put a huge tent up in the wilderness somewhere and pay guys to go to school there for the winter.”