Quebec’s Sleeping Giant mine, located about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, was facing a severe labour shortage last year as other mines began recruiting its miners away.
“Four years ago there wasn’t any problem. No one was looking for work elsewhere because there wasn’t any. Now the demand is there and the money is there,” said Marcel Collard, the mine’s HR manager. “There’s more demand for miners than there are miners and the mines that lose out are the ones that are farther away from the city.”
Besides being one of the mines farthest from the three cities in Quebec’s Abitibi region, Sleeping Giant, owned and operated by Cambior Inc., is also one of the very few non-automated mines left in the province. Because the ore deposit is very fine, the extraction has to be done by hand, not machine. This means more miners are needed and the hard, physical labour takes its toll. With the proper training, the average career for a miner working in such a mine is about 20 to 25 years, said Collard.
Instead of trying to convince experienced miners to come to Sleeping Giant mine, 80 kilometres north of Amos, Que., the nearest city, the mine took a different tact. Last September it began recruiting locals with little or no mining experience and turning them into miners.
Collard sent out a memo to staff, asking them if any family or friends were interested in becoming miners. Within one month, he had received more than 150 applications and he still gets about two or three applications each day.
Since last year, 41 people have entered the 700-hour training program. And now 24 of them are working as junior miners and seven are still completing their training. Ten others didn’t work out for various reasons. The program costs about $800,000 to $1 million a year, but it’s well worth it, said Collard.
“Without this program, we probably would have had to close down last year,” he said
During the training, which follows the provincial guidelines for miner training, the trainees earn $20 an hour, of which they actually receive $13.
In an effort to ensure the trainees won’t leave the program and take their training elsewhere, the mine, with union approval, decided to hold back a portion of the trainees’ pay. The trainees will receive 20 per cent of the withheld wages after one year on the job and the remainder after two years.
Once a trainee finishes the program, he will earn $23.40 an hour. Tack on the possibility of production and safety bonuses and it could go as high as $30.
The recruits, all from Amos and neighbouring communities, don’t have any prior training or education in mining. Many of them worked on farms, in factories or in the forestry industry and some worked at the local Canadian Tire, said Collard.
Since Collard can’t use previous experience as a selection criterion, he looks at other, less traditional factors.
“We look at their family,” he said. “If their uncle or father was a miner and was a good worker, chances are they’ll be a good worker too.”
The recruit’s attitude and age are other important factors to consider. A recruit must be 18 years old to legally work in a mine and because the average career is about 25 years long, Collard prefers to take on recruits no older than about 23.
The training program is very similar to the one offered at the Val-d’Or, Que., mining school, the Centre national des mines, but Sleeping Giant’s program only does the minimum of theoretical work required by the province and focuses more on the practical work.
For that, the mine has assigned three experienced miners who share their experience and knowledge with the trainees. The trainees are evaluated every week and those who aren’t working out are asked to leave the program. There’s also an exam at the end of each of the 10 training modules that the trainees must pass.
At the end of the program, even though the trainees don’t receive a certificate like the students at Val-d’Or, their training is recognized by Quebec and Ontario. The fact they’ve done their training at a non-automated mine makes them very attractive to other employers in both provinces, said Collard.
The demand for miners is only going to increase, according to the Mining Industry Training and Adjustment Council, which predicts the industry will need 81,000 workers over the next 10 years. Sleeping Giant’s program is one possible way to address that shortage, said Paul Hébert, the council’s executive director.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we’re going to see employers have to do to fill the labour shortage,” said Hébert. “I commend Cambior on the initiative they’ve taken here and I think other employers can take a cue from that site.”
Collard has already received calls from other mines about the program and would like to see more of them instituting their own training programs. Having more trained miners can only help the industry as a whole, he said.
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