Rubén del Pozo
Director of the School of Mines
Autonomous University of Zacatecas (UAZ)
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View from the Top

Developing High Quality Mining Talent

Mon, 10/21/2013 - 15:19

Q: What role has mining played in the state of Zacatecas and how has the School of Mines been involved in developing human capital for the industry?

A: Mining has always had a presence in our state. The very foundations of the city of Zacatecas are based on mining, and the economy of the state is directly related to mining, regardless of the cyclical ups and downs of metal prices. The mineral wealth of the state is well known in Mexico and all over the world.

Mining education has existed since colonial times. The Spanish formed education centers and the School of Mines formed part of them. In 1968 the first Mining and Metallurgical Engineers class graduated from the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. Between 1968 and 1985 we only offered the Mining and Metallurgical Engineering course, however in 1982 this changed: the discipline of mining was separated from the Engineering Faculty, and the School of Mines gained independence. The curriculum and courses were developed, and in 1985 the Engineering Geology program began. In 2005 the Environmental Science program was presented to the school board. This completed the Earth Sciences Academic Department, which is now able to offer a portfolio covering the study of mining, metallurgy, geology, and environmental science. We create mining professionals that explore and exploit the earth and, at the same time, take care of the environment and transform the minerals obtained.

Q: How does UAZ’s School of Mining manage the challenges posed by the impact of the cyclical nature of metal prices on student numbers?

A: It is well known that mining and metallurgical activities are affected by international mineral prices. When prices were depressed in the previous recession, enrollment fell not just in Zacatecas but also in the rest of the country. We had never expected the management to consider shutting down the academic center, but they did because it seemed more affordable to close the school and award scholarships to enrolled students and send them to study abroad. However, we searched for options and were inspired by programs offered by universities like the Colorado School of Mines, The University of Texas at El Paso and institutions in Australia. In those programs we found priority subjects in earth science and discovered a new field of study: environmental science, which brought us back to life. The School of Mines therefore survived, and when the mining market started to improve again we increased enrollment, which went from 250 students in 2008 to 750 in 2012.

Q: How does the School of Mines find qualified staff to teach these programs when there is great industry demand for mining professionals?

A: Teachers are essential. The demand for mining professionals is very high, especially for professionals with postgraduate degrees. Since we cannot compete with the salaries offered by mining companies, the School of Mines has decided to employ teachers who are active in the industry and at the same time teach. This approach has been successful because of our excellent relationship with the sector and our location in the most important mining area in Mexico, where we are surrounded by companies like Fresnillo, Goldcorp, First Majestic Silver, Grupo Mexico, and Minera Frisco. Being close to these companies gives us the necessary human capital, and provides a solution to the academic salary challenge. Our staff is 100% Mexican, and many of our teachers have postgraduate degrees or PhDs from abroad. Fortunately, we are able to mix both practical and academic experience, which helps students graduate with practical skills.

Q: Offering classes that are relevant to current developments in the sector is essential for academic institutions. How does the Environmental Science curriculum complete the education of your students?

A: We are very conscious of the public confusion that exists when it comes to mining activities and environmental impact. We obviously do not share this view, and by introducing an environmental course focused on mining we are trying to challenge it. Even though it is not current mining practices that harm and pollute the ecosystem, our intention is to fix the environmental damages that were caused by mining activities that took place over the past hundreds of years. On the other hand, it is important to promote mining as a clean industry. We are one of the few academic centers to focus on environmental studies for mining, and having had three graduating classes we are proud that many graduates are now working in the mining industry. We are in touch with them to get feedback on their experiences in the workplace, and to allow us to complement what we are teaching in the classroom.

Q: What adjustments are currently being made to the faculty’s earth science programs, as a result of the mining industry’s human resource requirements?

A: The School of Mines is producing mining professionals with two new skills: English language proficiency and mining software knowledge. These basic tools are provided at other academic centers, but we are nonetheless successfully improving the level of our programs in both fields. Our graduate profile has changed for the better because the industry is every day demanding better trained professionals. One characteristic of our school and state is that low income students come here with the desire to improve their situation and here they find the ideal place to transcend. I have been working here for 33 years and seen many examples of graduates acquiring management positions at Fresnillo, Peñoles and Minera Tayahua, among others. Mining production in the country is in the hands of our graduates, and it is very flattering for us to know that the School of Mines plays an important role both in the state and the country’s economy. The School of Mines enrollment multiplied by three in the last few years, and we had to limit admissions. We are aware that there are many aspiring students but we cannot enroll them all. We have to be very careful in our selection process, because we do not want to lose those students that have a real mining vocation. Our current challenge is to limit enrollment, be selective and choose the best students.

Q: What opportunities have emerged as a result of the Zacatecas mining cluster, CLUSMIN, which brings together the state’s private and public sectors?

A: The School of Mines brought together the leading mining companies before the cluster was created, and the mining cluster is simply the formalization of the preexisting relationship. Our links with the government have been good for a long time, and some of our school’s directors and graduates have been Mine Directors for the state of Zacatecas. There has been a lot of communication and collaboration between the state, the school and the industry: the triple helix. We have a lot to thank them for. For example, Grupo Mexico helped us with the auditorium, Grupo BAL rebuilt the School of Mines building, Capstone Mining helped us with buses, and Peñoles gave us vans. We have a lot of examples of state government support, as well.