Mining employment slips

Mining employment slips

The average number of mining and natural resources jobs in Fairbanks dropped 14 percent in the first quarter of 2007 after five consecutive years of first quarter growth, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While preliminary figures show a recovery in the second quarter of 2007, the dip provides a glimpse of the impact two major gold mines have on employment in the region, according to Rich Hughes with the Alaska Office of Mineral Development.

Hughes said the end of construction at the Pogo gold mine near Delta Junction late last year led to the decline in jobs for the last quarter of 2006 and the first quarter of 2007.

”There’s no major project that will take the place of Pogo right now,” he said.

The estimated 800 mining and natural resources jobs in the area in January 2007 represents the lowest monthly total since February 2003. It also represents a 20 percent decline from January 2006 figures, the largest 12-month percentage drop since February 2001.

Monthly employment figures rose to 900 jobs for both February and March 2007, although both months represented a 10 percent loss from the same period in 2006.

The dip in Fairbanks numbers run against a statewide trend.

Statewide, mining and natural resources employment in the first quarter of 2007 rose 16.2 percent from the first quarter of 2006. That growth should continue if construction begins on the Chuitna Coal project in the Beluga Coal Field near the Cook Inlet, the Donlin Creek project between Bethel and McGrath and the Pebble project outside Lake Iliamna.

Hughes said many jobs in the mining and natural resources sector of the economy ”” like gravel mining and placer mining ”” fluctuate seasonally but remain stable from year to year. Construction jobs, though, typically fluctuate more than other mining professions, as old projects are finished and new projects work to come online in other parts of the state.

”Construction workers are pretty migrant. They go wherever they can,” Hughes said.

Summer drilling and exploration work around Fairbanks should be busy.

The Vancouver-based International Tower Hill Mines Ltd. recently announced drilling projects at several sites around Fairbanks, while exploration continues at several small projects in the Pogo area and work on the Nixon Fork gold mine near McGrath recently expanded.

”The exploration numbers are almost going to replace the construction numbers that were lost at Pogo,” Hughes said.

The Fort Knox gold mine northeast of Fairbanks has had more trouble finding workers than creating jobs, according to mine spokeswoman Lorna Shaw.

Five years ago, lower metal prices forced many mines to shut down or merge, creating a highly competitive job market. Now, with metal prices reaching record peaks, highly qualified applicants are in great demand again.

”We have found that it’s a lot harder now to fill positions,” Shaw said.

The mine typically budgets for around 400 employees each year, Shaw said.

Regional employment will increase if Fort Knox receives state permits this summer to extend the life of the mine through heap leaching, a process that uses a cyanide formula to extract gold from low-grade ore. The facility would probably not open before 2009 but would require 25 or more new positions, according to Shaw.

The mine is also conducting ”very preliminary” exploration for possible Phase 7, Shaw said.

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