Canada's mining industry is wooing more women workers than ever, but still falling far short of meeting its labour needs.
According to the Ottawa-based Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), the number of women in the industry has increased to 18,000, up considerably from previous decades.
But MiHR says women still comprise only about 12.5 per cent of the sector's 140,000 employees across Canada. In some production jobs, the percentage of women is much lower, only in the four- to five-per-cent range.
"The percentage of women is increasing, although we are still dealing with a lot of legacies," says Ryan Montpellier, MiHR's executive director. "The mining industry hasn't been appealing to women for a long time - and we're working to change that."
Montpellier says the council estimates the industry will have a shortage of 92,000 jobs over the next decade as Baby Boomers retire.
The figure is based on MiHR's mining labour market transition report released last year. It's up from a previously predicted shortfall of 81,000, which was based on a 2005 MiHR study.
Positions in demand include traditional geoscientists, as well as electricians, welders and equipment operators.
Ontario Mining Association (OMA) spokesman Peter McBride said that province will account for about a third of the anticipated labour shortage.
McBride says the OMA will hold a conference in Windsor in June and one of the main workshops will focus on how to make the mining workplace more friendly to women.
"We've got lots of women who are coming to tell their personal stories, and we'll be working to try to get some concrete ideas on the table for companies to pursue and for the association to hold out there an umbrella activity to raise that demographic," he says.
MiHR's Montpellier says while the mining industry is going through a significant period of prosperity with high commodity prices, it's becoming increasingly challenging to retain skilled workers.
Some companies, he says, will lose up to half of their workforces in the coming years. The council, national and provincial industry associations, and exploration and production firms are targeting women, Aboriginals and disabled people while looking at ways to develop new technologies and retain older workers.
The mining sector also plans to recruit from industries such as forestry and manufacturing, which are experiencing major downsizing.
Montpellier says a joint study between MiHR and the Conference Board of Canada recently found that companies are using many innovative strategies to attract women and other under-represented groups. But he suggests there is still a lot of work to be done.
"We are out there, working with the school system and so on, to try to dispel some of the myths about working in the mining industry," says Montpellier. "We do a lot of research with youth - male and female - and there are still a lot of negative stereotypes that exist within the industry. What we're trying to do is change some of those stereotypes and let people know that the mining industry is not a brute-force industry."
According to a BC Mineral Exploration and Mining Labour Market Task Force report released earlier this month, only about 16 per cent of B.C. mining employees who responded are women. B.C. mining companies estimate they will have a shortage of 15,000 employees over the next decade.
The task force, in conjunction with MiHR, Ottawa and the B.C. government, has developed a labour strategy that would cost $40 million to implement. If all goes according to plan, governments would provide $30 million and industry $10 million.
Cassandra Hall, a geologist who serves as communications and community relations director with the Association for Mineral Exploration BC (AME BC), says the sector has had difficulty attracting women because it is science-based.
"Many women in the K-12 zone don't go into sciences, so then you have a smaller pool for them to enter," she says. "And, it is a male-dominated industry, so that can be intimidating for many women. Most places I worked at would have no, or very few, women."
More women are entering the industry now, she says, because they are choosing science as a viable career and geology is starting to attract people who like the outdoors. Some women have also persevered and become mentors. But it is difficult for companies to retain women.
"My graduating class probably had (a) 50-50 (split of men and women), but many (women) don't stay in the industry," says Hall, who obtained her geology degree from the University of Western Ontario in 1997.
She says it's difficult for many women miners to find a work-life balance, adding her own current post is a "compromise.”
She got into the public relations side because she wanted to remain in the industry, but travel less, after her daughter was born four years ago.
But Danette Schwab, a geologist with Vancouver-based exploration and development company NovaGold Resources, says the male-female ratio among geologists in her company is almost 50-50.
"I just find that there are not a lot of people in the mid-range age that are geologists," says Schwab. "I'm not sure what was happening in the past - why women weren't entering the field - but I think that's changed now."
In Ontario, the OMA's McBride says mining companies are "waking up" when it comes to hiring women.
"They're doing a lot to change things right now," he says. "Part of that is changing the image of the industry.
"In the past, mining employed less technology. It's an image of an industry that's male-dominated and, perhaps, not too clean. Now, as technology has come in, modern mining is certainly (among) the safest industries going nationally."
But an AME BC survey also shows companies are struggling to hire women while offering higher than average salaries. A senior geologist with 20 years of experience can earn up to $105,000 per year while a newcomer with two years of experience receives $56,000 annually. A mid-career geologist with 10-14 years of experience earns a median salary of $87,500 while someone with 15-19 years can make $95,000.
"Women are in all facets of mining," says David Bazowski, chairman of the BC Mineral Exploration and Mining Labour Market Task Force. "We just think there's greater opportunity to have more women in all of those jobs."
Most women work in mining's professional ranks and camp-service positions.
Historically, he says, perceptions about men's work and women's work and the amount of physical labour required in mining have deterred females from seeking careers in the sector. But mining actually requires more brains than brawn - in other words, skills to operate equipment that does the heavy work for you.
"It's not the pick-and-shovel heavy load work," says Bazowski. "That's not the way mining works today. It's a high-volume, economies-of-scale type of industry, so it means there are really no restrictions physically for anybody to participate."
The OMA's McBride agrees, adding given the technological changes in the industry, there are "no muscle barriers."
"You don't need to be a weightlifter to be a miner," he says.
(Monte Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)