Monday, July 4, 2011

First Jobs in Brief

Once upon a time ... I was a budding but green economic geologist of the hard rock kind (I'm no longer green or budding, but otherwise the same). It was an era when many mineral exploration companies and related outfits looked to hire graduates who had recently completed their Master's degree in geology, a time when summer jobs (not internships as they seem to now be called) were often available to M.S. students prior to graduation, and a time when some summer jobs were available for geologists still working on their Bachelor's degrees. A solid background in mineralogy, petrography, structure, and completion of field camp were usually expected, and for "real" jobs (the so-called full-time jobs, permanent or semi-permanent, which eventually led to variable benefits), it was expected that your graduate degree had focused on hard rock geology of some kind, with a thesis centered around some economic problem—the mapping of a mining district being one classic type of thesis that companies looked for and encouraged (and sometimes funded).

Never mind your background and degrees, however, one could still expect to do some kind of fairly basic field work for one's first summer or two—or even for many of the early years—the details of that work depending on your aptitude, the availability of more creative or responsible assignments (and the possibility of designing self-generated exploration programs), and the type of on-the-job training you might get (or not get). Because we all came from hard rock and mineral-exploration–oriented backgrounds, companies and bosses expected us to want to go out and find something (a gold or moly deposit or prospect, for example), and companies and bosses expected us to be enthusiastic about getting out there and doing it, despite the long hours, hard work, variable to poor accomodations, and generally poor connections to what might have been our home life, if we had managed to create one while in grad school. It was a work-hard–play-hard sort of ethic, one left over from field camp, one that stayed with many of us through the long years. In recompense, you got paid somewhere between one half and two thirds of what petroleum companies were paying M.S. grads, and you got to see lots of new countryside (the Brooks Range in Alaska was quite popular for a couple-three years), and you probably would get some serious 4WD experience and maybe even learn a few basics of helicopter flight (which you would hopefully never have to use).

For my first field job, a summer job, I collected stream sediment and water samples across a good portion of central Nevada. I worked for a young woman younger than my then 25 years; I did most of the navigating, she did most of the driving.

For my second field job, a summer job that ended up lasting four years, with one-year renewals every winter, I was given a hand sample test as part of my interview, an interview conducted by at least two, if not three or four, male geologists who were perhaps mostly in their late twenties to possibly mid-thirties.

After being hired, I was, as I've mentioned before, almost immediately sent out to a semi-remote helicopter camp (town was only a few miles of pavement away, but town was small, and we were all a long way from home, with the company offering transportation and accomodations on days off to whatever "larger" town was nearby*). Our primary job was to collect numerous stream sediment samples and the occasional rock sample on daily traverses down 3 to 5 mile drainages, while also taking scintillometer readings along the way and at sample sites. We worked in 4-man crews (2 women, 2 men in my camp—plus camp cook, a helicopter pilot and fuel truck driver shared between two camps, and an occasional boss). We were fortunate to do some on-the-ground geologic mapping in four areas staked by the company during the course of, and as a result of, our summer explorations.

I hired my own field assistants/partners from 1981 through about 1991, usually one per summer or year, sometimes with jobs lasting as long as two years. I unabashedly practised reverse discrimination as much as possible: looking around, I could see that if I didn't hire women, none or very few would get hired. I rarely ended up hiring someone who didn't know basic rocks and minerals. In fact, the young geologists I interviewed, my age to a few years younger than me, often knew more than the basics, and they usually knew the basics quite well. Some were mineralogical hot shots; others were strong in geochemistry. I would often have to teach sampling methods and what in particular to look for; this basic exploration introduction was often accomplished by an early season field trip designed to see mineralized areas of interest, whether or not those areas were held under claim by us or by others (the latter would, of necessity, involve some stealth operations). My favorite place to go for this recon intro was Yuma, where we could always get good food and pitchers of margaritas (stories of Yuma not yet told).

Because of the orientation of geologists coming in to interview, and the orientation of schools we sometimes recruited at, I rarely had to work with young geologists who had no, or little, interest in the work we would set out to do every morning. I had one or two field assistants who were rather lackluster, maybe showing little inclination to learn the terminology of the field or to put in the required hours of throwing drilling samples into the back of my truck, only to lug them once again from the bed of the pickup to the sample trailer—but I've been lucky and have rarely run across these lackluster types. At least once I was at fault for hiring the wrong person (choosing the right people hasn't always been easy for me, and at least once, with the company refusing to match the going summer rate during the slowdown of the late 80s, the best candidate got away to some worthy competitor, maybe Freeport or Newmont). At least one of the lackluster types was hired by someone else for later in the season, with me being stuck with that person until my temp showed up later in the year. (At Northern Exploration Company, our summer geologists were called "summer hires" or "summer" somethings; at Former Mining Company, we called them "temps," an epithet I gradually adjusted to and finally used.)

During my own slowdown years (and perhaps the trend had already started sometime during the 80s), it gradually came to pass that geologists with solid hard rock basics and Master's degrees became unavailable or less and less abundant, schools changed directions and dropped mining-related degrees and course work, and some schools eventually ran out if funding for field trips and field camps while basic on-campus field methods classes fell by the wayside. Some Schools of Mines became Schools of Earth Sciences. And so it went...


* On my first days off, because I refused to be shipped off to the larger town of Las Vegas (at only 4 years in Nevada, I was already a die-hard, not interested in casinos or glitz), I stayed in camp, driving a company truck up to Wheeler Peak one day, and driving around the Caliente area on other days. We had three days off for every 11 worked (that, by the way, fully identifies "Northern Exploration Company" to those in the know).


Gaelyn said...

An interesting career start and sad that there aren't more students interested in geology of any kind. And I salute your reversed discrimination. I'd rather be in the field than an office any day. Look forward to the Yuma stories.

Silver Fox said...

Sorry if I implied there aren't students interested in geology. There are, and the number interested in hard rock and field geology may be increasing, especially over the very slow 2000s, where students at mining/exploration meetings were rare.

It's a kind of incomplete story, the way I told it. A new cycle is always on the way, although we don't always know what the cycle will bring.