Next week, former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter will become Colorado’s 41st Governor. Although Ritter pledged to reform higher education, it remains to be seen if he will provide the assurance sought by a journalism student in Ritter’s University of Denver debate with Congressman Bob Beauprez. Writing in National Review Online, Greg A. Pollowitz reports she asked, “What is the government going to do to make sure I can get a job?” Regrettably, the candidates gave lengthy answers instead of responding simply, “Change your major.”
That would have made clear that the student and not government is responsible for her employment prospects. Moreover, it would have been great advice. Today, energy and mining companies are paying top dollar for petroleum and mining engineers: graduates will receive a starting salary of $65,000 plus a sizeable signing bonus. A recent Colorado School of Mines Mining Engineering graduate received a $120,000 package from an energy company developing Canada’s Athabasca oil sands. Unfortunately, there are too few such qualified graduates; as a result, not only are those jobs going begging, top executives in the oil patch and mining are calling the situation a “crisis.”
Accepting the “Mining Man of the Year” Award from the Mining Foundation of the Southwest in Tucson, last month, Jack E. Thompson, Jr., formerly of Newmont Mining Corporation and Homestake Mining Company, delivered his acceptance speech on the crisis. Dr. James V. Taranik, Director of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering at the University of Nevada in Reno, has been leading the Mining Educational Sustainability Task Force for the Society of Mining Engineers to develop an action plan to address the crisis, which is due in part to the state of post-secondary education.
When Jack Thompson, Jim Taranik, and other mining leaders entered college, there were over forty institutions of higher learning offering mining engineering degree programs, including Harvard, Columbia, and Yale; today there are but fifteen. There are many reasons why colleges have abandoned this field, despite the world’s growing need for natural resources and environmentally-sensitive ways of providing them. Incredibly, the biggest reason is cost. Notwithstanding ever escalating tuition, many major universities abandoned practical science and engineering studies because they are not “cost effective.” According to Dr. Taranik, the cost of turning out one more social scientist, or journalist for that matter, is only $1,500; it costs $45,000 to graduate a mining engineer. Coincidental with this cynical decision and consistent with it, colleges, which once sought to prepare students for the job market, now seek only to “increase knowledge.”
Colleges are not the only ones to blame. Top mining expert, Dr. William H. Dresher, speaking recently in Arizona, declared, “in a decade of judging Arizona state science fairs, I have never seen an exhibit addressing geology, mining, or metallurgy. What is worse, it is hard to find a school that teaches science, let alone discusses engineering!” Astonishingly, this is in Arizona, the nation’s largest copper producer. Dr. Mary M. Poulton, Chair of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering at the University of Arizona, reports only one-third of U.S. high schools have a one year course in earth science, mostly astronomy, in which only seven percent of high school students enroll.
As Michael Sanera and Jane S. Shaw reveal in Facts Not Fear: Teaching Children About the Environment (Regnery 1999), schools do a marvelous job turning children into nonsense spouting Chicken Littles. Unsurprisingly, it is not just the facts about the environment that schools fail to teach; they are oblivious to fundamental facts regarding the building blocks of modern civilization, such as, “if it can’t be grown, it has to be mined.” No wonder, with children totally ignorant as to the need for raw materials—not to mention their source—that few youth entering high school consider a career in energy development or mining.
No wonder coeds who attend gubernatorial debates worry about their job prospects.