The promise of thousands of jobs from a boom in copper-nickel mining has won the new industry broad political support on the Iron Range. But where a rush in employment creates opportunity, it may also present a challenge.
The state is facing an escalating workforce shortage sparked by retiring baby boomers. There are more than 146,000 job vacancies in the state, including nearly 8,000 in northeast Minnesota, and industrial sectors of the economy such as manufacturing have not been spared from the labor crunch.
Workforce leaders and two companies that hope to build Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mines, PolyMet Mining and Twin Metals Minnesota, are not predicting jobs would go unfilled if the projects are eventually approved and built. But they have been setting the groundwork to raise a sizable new labor force. PolyMet says it plans to directly employ 360 people at an open-pit mine near Hoyt Lakes and create more than 600 spinoff jobs. Twin Metals says it expects to hire 700 at an underground mine near Ely and create 1,400 indirect jobs.
But the implications for the area’s workforce would be “crazy,” said Michelle Ufford, executive director of the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training, as the number of jobs tied to the high-wage copper-nickel industry would test the region’s job training systems while putting a strain on other, lower-wage employers already struggling to find workers.
“I live in constant fear that we’re not doing enough” to prepare, Ufford said.
What the mining companies are looking for
PolyMet, which is closest to building Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine, once hoped to begin construction in 2019. But while its project has been approved by the state, key permits are currently on hold after a range of court challenges. Still, the company is nevertheless working to finance its $1 billion mine in order to break ground.
If built, most of PolyMet’s direct employees would be in positions that generally require completion of two-year technical certificate programs, rather than associate degrees or other higher education. Spokesman Bruce Richardson said those jobs include everything from truck drivers and heavy equipment operators to quality assurance technicians, surveyors and mechanical maintenance workers.
The company also expects to hire between 25 and 30 people for professional and administrative positions like Human Resources and IT — jobs that typically need certifications or associate degrees. Finally, between 35 and 40 people are needed for what Richardson said are specialized jobs, like geologists and engineers, that require college and advanced degrees.
Richardson said PolyMet plans to hire “as many folks from northeast Minnesota as possible,” and he and Ufford said they expect to see people return to the Iron Range who had left for jobs elsewhere. PolyMet might have to hire from outside the area for a few “specialty” jobs tied to the unique nature of copper-nickel mining, Richardson said. But the company believes “almost all of the skills and talent we’ll need are on the Range.”
Although the industry is a new one in Minnesota, copper-nickel mining is substantially similar to iron ore and taconite mining so common in the northeastern part of the state, which has a “skilled and experienced” mining workforce already in place, Richardson said. “It might be to the detriment of other operations, but we have had a lot of interest from Iron Rangers who want to work at PolyMet.”
Twin Metals promises even more jobs, though it may not ever open. The company plans to submit an operating plan to state and federal regulators this year for environmental reviews. There is no expected timeline for that to finish — PolyMet’s permitting process took nearly 15 years — and the proximity of Twin Metals to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has drawn significant political opposition from those who warn it could pollute the protected wilderness.
Yet Twin Metals, too, is already preparing to build its workforce. Spokesman David Ulrich said the company will also need specialized workers that are experts in the process of copper-nickel mining. Unlike PolyMet, however, Twin Metals will be an underground mine, the region’s first in roughly 60 years. “There’s just not that technical talent base here” for some of those jobs, Ulrich said. “We’ve reached out across the world to find some of the premier folks on Earth to come and help us with this project.”
Whenever possible, however, Ulrich said the company plans to rely on hiring people from northeastern Minnesota.
The local landscape
While many on the Iron Range have clamored for the new mining jobs, PolyMet and Twin Metals could open amid significant challenges in finding qualified labor. The region has lost more than 3,500 workers since 2009 and job vacancies are climbing. The main cause is an aging population.
The tight labor market has been felt all over the state, but it has been especially acute in the construction and manufacturing sectors, which have a workforce with similar qualifications as the mining industry. In its annual survey of the manufacturing sector, Enterprise Minnesota said the top concern of businesses in 2019 was hiring and keeping workers.
In northeastern Minnesota, the food service industry has by far the most vacancies, with more than 7,000 unfilled jobs. But there are still hundreds of construction and extraction jobs open, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
So while the new mining companies expect to compete for existing workers and have the benefit of a seasoned iron ore industry, PolyMet and Twin Metals have been active in promoting the region’s education system and vocational training programs.
Mike Raich, interim president of the Northeast Higher Education District (NHED), a consortium of five colleges in the region, said representatives from the mining companies sit on an advisory committee discussing how the current curriculum involving mechanical, electrical and welding programs could benefit the projects.
NHED might have programs relevant for most of the projected jobs, but the colleges are facing their own shortage: declining student enrollment due to an aging population. “We can have the programs, but will there be enough students?” Raich said.
For that reason, boosting the education system to steer youth into local jobs has long been a priority on the Iron Range.
Ron Ulseth founded the Iron Range Engineering project a decade ago in Virginia to help keep local talent. A partnership between Minnesota State University Mankato, Mesabi Range College and Itasca Community College, the IRE prioritizes hands-on engineering projects in its four-year degree program. Ulseth said nearly all 160 graduates have stayed in the Northland.
Ulseth said this fall marks the first semester of his latest venture, the IRE Bell Program, which has 20 students seeking degrees and paid internships. Ulseth said the students are interested copper-nickel jobs because of the materials’ technological applications. “If I asked our students, ‘How many of you would like to work for PolyMet?’ I’m confident that more than a third would raise their hand,” Ulseth said. “Some students would see that as unique and cutting edge.”
The push to increase vocational training has also spread to high schools. Roy Smith, director of education and talent development for the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, said his organization helped create the Applied Learning Institute in 2006, a partnership between the area’s colleges and high schools, to boost industry and trades among students.
Ufford, of the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training, said residents of Eveleth, Gilbert and Virginia recently voted to consolidate their school districts and build a new high school that will feature different “career academy” focuses for students. One academy includes classes for engineering, manufacturing, tech and natural resources.
Ufford recently took a job at the district to help design curriculum and partner with local businesses, and said it’s critical to show youth on the Iron Range they don’t have to attend a four-year college to find meaningful and high-paying employment. “Part of it is addressing the needs of the economy, of course, but also to instill the pride in those types of occupations that has been lost,” she said.
Twin Metals’ Ulrich said he has served on advisory panels and boards for the Learning Institute, the IRE and NHED to help give input on what the company needs from an incoming workforce. Ulrich was also on a statewide workforce council for then-Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration and currently serves on the Northeast Minnesota Workforce Investment Board, which helps spend federal money on workforce development programs.
Richardson said PolyMet has worked with NHED and several other economic development organizations aimed at attracting skilled workers to northeast Minnesota, such as the nonprofit consulting firm NorthSpan.
Ufford predicted copper-nickel mining companies would not struggle to fill their jobs should they materialize. Even with tough competition for workers, she said those positions will be highly sought after since they often come with high wages and good benefits. “That’s the place where everybody wants to go,” Ufford said.
For example, existing mining jobs in the Arrowhead had an average weekly wage of $1,904 in 2018, compared to $323 for hospitality and food service jobs — the type of positions with the most vacancies in the region.
But spinoff jobs could be tougher to fill, Ufford said. Competing manufacturing businesses and other industries in the skilled trades on the Iron Range could lose workers to the mines and face trouble finding new ones if they can’t pay as much. That fear has driven much of her push to reinvigorate interest in young people to seek out vocational training and education.
Doug Gregor, the mayor of Aurora, which is near the proposed PolyMet site, said new demand for child care — another low wage industry — could be hard to meet given the region already has a shortage of providers.
And while the influx of jobs isn’t expected to rival the boom in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, cities are thinking ahead on how to accommodate what they hope will be a surge in new residents.
In 2014, North Dakota said 80,000 people showed up looking for work over the course of several years, swelling the populations of Williston and Watford City and sending local officials scrambling for hundreds of millions in loans to build infrastructure and housing.
In 2016, the City of Ely funded a study from Maxfield Research and Consulting, which estimated the mining projects could boost the local population up to 5,000 by 2025, an increase of about 30 percent since 2010. The firm projected the city needed to build 705 households in that time frame to meet demands.
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak said city officials plan to build up to 12 structures over the next year to include four townhouses each. “Folks can go there on short-term until they’re established in the area,” he said, adding that he hoped families would eventually buy nearby properties.
City officials have actively sought out several million dollars in bonding from the Minnesota Legislature to help with housing development and infrastructure-related projects. “When you look at the Bakken, they didn’t know what was coming and when they hit they were overwhelmed,” Novak said. “We have a pretty good handle on things.”
Gregor said Aurora is researching housing needs, but also wants to bring a grocery story and high speed internet to the city to attract and keep young families. “It’s a digital age,” Gregor said. “Kids and their parents have expectations of full accessibility to the broader internet world.”
For Raich, the NHED interim president, the chance of new high-wage jobs is a “good problem” because it means more people will want to study and live on the Iron Range. Still, he said he will keep working with mining companies and regional leaders to better recruit and retain people to workers. “It’s challenging,” he added. “I don’t know if there’s a single silver bullet to solve this.”