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PolyMet and Twin Metals say they’ll create thousands of Iron Range jobs. Does Minnesota have the workers to fill them?

Leftover structures from an old LTV Steel taconite facility
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Leftover structures from an old LTV Steel taconite facility that PolyMet hopes to refurbish and reuse for the copper-nickel mine it plans to build.

This story is a collaboration between MinnPost and the Hibbing Daily Tribune/Mesabi Daily News

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.

PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson showing a map of the company's land near Hoyt Lakes at its mining headquarters.
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.

tailings dam
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
A tailings dam at an old LTV Steel taconite processing site that PolyMet plans to refurbish to hold waste from its copper-nickel mine.
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.

Spinoff effects

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.

PolyMet spokeswoman LaTisha Gietzen
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
PolyMet spokeswoman LaTisha Gietzen holding up tailings from the site of an abandoned LTV Steel taconite processing site where the company hopes to renovate and mine for copper and nickel.
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.”

Comments (40)

  1. Submitted by Steve Timmer on 10/30/2019 - 11:57 am.

    The thing that mining companies, especially PolyMet — just ask any shareholder not named Glencore — are best at is selling blue sky.

    Nothing in the article changes the fact that PolyMet doesn’t have a water discharge permit that complies with the Clean Water Act, that it offers the most dangerous form of tailings storage extant — a “Hail Mary” in the words of one DNR consultant, that PolyMet has never, in decades of existence, ever earned a dime from mining operations, or that PolyMet by itself is a financially irresponsible permittee.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/30/2019 - 12:00 pm.

    Obviously jobs vacancies will be filled by currently out of state people who move here. The question is do they have the housing there?

    Also, we’ve discussed before the fact that these jobs claims are typically exaggerated. It’s kind of weird to proceed under the assumption that company claims can be accepted at face value.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/30/2019 - 12:28 pm.

    Move the decimal one place to the left, & this is starting to sound like the Fox Conn con.

    Should this boom come to pass, and the operation ends in 20 years (as we’ve been told), will I be asked to bail them out of their collapsing home values? Will I be asked to pay for job retraining & relocation assistance?

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/30/2019 - 04:10 pm.

      Of course not, they will have been frugal folks, they will have paid off their houses and saved diligently for the end they knew was coming…just kidding. If this goes through at the end of 20 years home values and job retraining will be the least of our worries.

    • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 11/01/2019 - 08:45 am.

      Twenty, thirty years, or more, the iron range will find itself in the same “fix” it is now. Yeah, the taxpayers will be footing the bills as the mines shut down once again, and things like housing has the bottom drop out and everything else that goes with it. Plus, if something goes wrong, or the so-called science of holding back contamination in mining fails….we all know who will foot THAT clean up no matter how many generations it takes. The IRRB was set up in place of taxes to bring new industry to the range, and replace the mine jobs which will run out in the end anyway you look at it. But the local politicians are squandering that cash into other things and “pet projects”. Giants Ridge is a good example of that. So Yeah, the taxpayer in the end will be footing the bills when or how the mines disappear from the area. At that point it`s back to square one once again.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Weyandt on 10/30/2019 - 12:28 pm.

    An industry publication doesn’t paint the same picture.

  5. Submitted by Arthur Lind on 10/30/2019 - 01:44 pm.

    Build them and the workforce will come, just like in the mid-60’s & 70’s during the taconite boom period. Classmates from the early 60’s with degrees in teaching returned home to take hourly jobs in the mines which paid more and were closer to the Northland they loved.

    • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 11/01/2019 - 08:47 am.

      In thirty years or less, those same people you mention will be crying in their soup because they`re kids are unemployed once again up there.

  6. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 10/30/2019 - 02:13 pm.

    Get ready for the man camps and the 10 buck MacDonalds.

  7. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/30/2019 - 02:15 pm.

    Funny, folks are acting as if these jobs are actually going to materialize. Haven’t they heard this all before? I remember when Northwest Airlines was going to be training Jet Engine mechanics. How’d that work out?

  8. Submitted by Julie Stroeve on 10/30/2019 - 08:44 pm.

    this particular piece takes the emphasis off the risks of mining and onto the employment of unskilled laborers to do the mining. before we make a decision about the efficacy of copper nickel mining in the Boundary Waters, let’s have an objective look at the risks and benefits of rare mineral mining in a vast environmentally sensitive area, namely the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. there’s never been a tailings waste containment by this foreign country that HASN’T leaked havoc on surrounding bodies of water and land. Miners will not submit to environmental destruction of the land that born and raised them. There is another way.

  9. Submitted by Howard Miller on 10/30/2019 - 09:59 pm.

    How many times does Lucy need to pull the football when Charlie Brown approaches to kick it

    before communities understand these foreign owned corporate promises fall short time after time?

    Ask our friends and neighbors in Wisconsin how well FoxConn is working out for them?

  10. Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/31/2019 - 07:40 am.

    Mining is still labor intensive, even with automation. Many of my friends children, who love the Range, left for jobs elsewhere and would love to return to home with a great job. The jobs that couldn’t be filled by local workers will be filled by folks from elsewhere. That is great, new blood up here. 3,000 new jobs on the Iron Range, all good!!

  11. Submitted by William Duncan on 10/31/2019 - 08:26 am.

    We have polluted most of the rest of the State. Apparently it is imperative that we pollute the whole.

    There is something so very servile and un-American about this jobs jobs jobs thing, so dependent on foreign corporations, plundering the bulk of the resource for the benefit of executives and shareholders, with locals left with the inevitable mess.

    What hubris to treat this as progress, this exploitation so oblivious to long term consequences. Such a very bitter pill for generations to come, our profiting from their misery.

    • Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/31/2019 - 10:06 am.

      If you were worried about global plunder of American jobs NAFTA would have never been signed into law, Chinese plunder of our jobs and intellectual property would have stopped 30 years ago. Making mining about Globalism is hard to take seriously. 3,000 jobs on the Range, let’s start mining!

      • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 10/31/2019 - 10:37 am.

        Joe, again I’ll ask:

        Are you on board with Glencore and Antofagasta being added to the mining permits?


        “If you were worried about global plunder of American jobs NAFTA would have never been signed into law.”

        I am not sure how this falls solely upon Mr. Duncan, please explain.

        • Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/31/2019 - 11:07 am.

          I’m for Polymet and Twin Metals (once they pass all permitting) to get up and going ASAP. My point on Globalism was simple, that ship sailed long ago with support from both parties (we finally have an America First President). Whose name is on the permits is not important to me, having companies in compliance with 2019 regulations is.

          Again, if you don’t want to do business with any company outside the USA, good for you. I try to buy only American made products as much as possible. Delaying tactics have sidetracked this process for 15-20 years trying to turn this into a Globalism conversation is 30 years too late.

          • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 10/31/2019 - 01:57 pm.

            Joe, but it seems obvious that “2019 Regulations” would be more easily enforced if the parent companies were ultimately held accountable for any unforeseen events. As is, you are tacitly advocating for a shell company that can declare bankruptcy and possibly escape accountability. You should care who is on the permit.

            • Submitted by Joe Smith on 11/01/2019 - 02:00 pm.

              I’m not willing to wait for the court case to decide if a parent company has to put its name on a subsidiary company permit. I’ve already heard the talk in the 60’s that the switch from iron ore to taconite was going to ruin the Range. Still waiting on that scare tactic by the anti mining folks to come true.

              • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 11/01/2019 - 06:28 pm.

                Joe, you are still not answering the question. And you don’t need the court to decide for you. Your assertion about taconite mining is irrelevant to this discussion. Again, nothing scary, should Antafogasta and Glencore be on the permits?

                • Submitted by Joe Smith on 11/02/2019 - 07:15 am.

                  No, legally they don’t have to be and as I stated, not willing to wait for congress to change the law. Pass the permitting process and let’s employ 3,000 new workers up here.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 10/31/2019 - 11:25 am.

        I have railed against the plunder of American jobs since the advent of the modern trade agreement, GATT, WTO, NAFTA, TPP et al, which has been about weakening nation state and citizen sovereignty while empowering corporations, banks and billionaires.

        No we are seeing the apex of that, with Glencore and Antafogasta treating Minnesota like our corporations treated Bolivia etc back in the heyday of American imperial plunder.

        Now you claim to be against such trade agreements, but champion the right of a foreign conglomerate to plunder the resource and pollute for generations to come in the Arrowhead.

  12. Submitted by Jim Marshal on 10/31/2019 - 11:35 am.

    “The region has lost more than 3,500 workers since 2009 and job vacancies are climbing. The main cause is an aging population.”………….No. The main cause is a lack of jobs up here that pay livable wages. This is true of most rural counties in MN.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/31/2019 - 03:33 pm.

      JM, not to get out there, and there is a similar problem in the metro areas, “that pay livable wages” Interesting that rural and urban areas have something of core value in common!

      • Submitted by Jim Marshal on 11/01/2019 - 08:24 am.

        That’s true but unlike the arrowhead; the shortage of good paying jobs in the twin cities has not been acute enough to where it is causing young adults and families to flee. Yet.

    • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 11/01/2019 - 08:54 am.

      Well Jim, I guess the area should have been using the IRRRB funds for what they were meant for! If they were, there would be more jobs up there.

      • Submitted by Jim Marshal on 11/02/2019 - 09:39 am.

        The ‘area’ doesn’t decide how IRRRB funds are dispersed. That is up to its unelected board. Some of whom are not even arrowhead residents. I think the IRRRB’s proposed budget for 2020 is around $40 million which works out to be around $160 per arrowhead resident. It is used for a myriad of projects and programs including daycare funding, school playgrounds, recreational and infrastructure projects and small business improvements.

        I’m not a fan of how the IRRRB board is chosen or of many of the projects they fund but this vitriol by many TC residents who believe that we up here are sitting atop some giant pile of cash and could (if we wanted to) simply use this $40 million a year to lift our struggling residents into the ranks of the middle class is ridiculous.

        • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 12/05/2019 - 10:14 am.

          I live in Ely. I know all about the IRRRB and it`s usage. It has NOT been put to the use it was originally intended for.

  13. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/31/2019 - 03:59 pm.

    Jobs, jobs, jobs, curious who would US companies sell their goods to if no other country or even folks here in America could afford them? Such is the dilemma of economics and competition,

  14. Submitted by Susu Jeffrey on 11/03/2019 - 12:00 pm.

    Temporary jobs–permanent pollution.

  15. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 11/04/2019 - 09:41 am.

    These companies will create a minimal amount of temporary jobs, along with a massive amount pollution that will never be cleaned up. It will also end the tourism, which NE MN depends more upon than mining. Copper nickel mining will “kill” NE Minnesota.

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