The imminent geologist shortage

Underinvestment in exploration, lagging incentives, and “lazy industrial policy” are setting the stage for a severe talent shortage by 2030.

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December 20, 2023
Graphic of a mine and mountains with cut-out of a geologist

AI-generated image credit: Gold Flamingo

The demand for critical minerals to power the energy transition is immense — and only growing.

According to the International Energy Agency, by 2040 the world is currently on track to double mineral requirements for clean energy technologies including electric vehicles and battery storage. Hitting net zero globally by 2050, however, would require six times as many critical minerals as are in use today. 

There’s one major problem, and it isn’t that the world doesn’t have enough minerals: economies like the United States simply don’t have enough geologists.

Roughly 27% of the existing geoscience workforce in the U.S. will be retiring by 2029, and there aren’t enough geologists to take their places. By the end of the decade, the country will be facing a labor gap of 130,000 full-time geoscientists, according to the American Geosciences Institute’s projections.

That’s a significant deficit of people whose expertise is needed for the energy transition: everything from upstream exploration to downstream processing of in-demand materials (lithium for EVs and batteries, copper for grid lines, and rare earths for wind turbine magnets). And it could especially pose challenges for EV and other companies looking to benefit from new tax credits that will require cutting China out of their critical minerals supply chains. 

The high-skilled labor shortage isn't a problem that's restricted to the U.S.; there's been a "substantial decline" in the geology workforce throughout the entire western world, said Walter Copan, vice president for research and technology transfer at the Colorado School of Mines. 

And while industries are starting to feel the impacts of the impending shortage now, Copan said the shortage has actually been underway for around a decade. Ultimately, he added, it will touch "every sector of the energy and materials economy."

‘Now we’re in trouble’

Tom Moerenhout, a research scholar at Columbia, who specializes in energy transition supply chains, said that even while demand for critical minerals has increased, the U.S. has “actually underinvested in both production and exploration.”

“Specifically exploration has been underinvested in for easily a decade, maybe longer,” he added. “And so now we’re in trouble.”

With sectors like solar, wind, and batteries looking to meet even higher deployment targets, he added, that exploration deficit will become a bottleneck in the supply chain by as soon as 2035. 

Looking ahead to 2050, demand for energy transition materials is projected to reach new heights, increasing by over 200% for both graphite and cobalt, and by over 900% for lithium and rare earths.

The U.S. is far from alone in its underinvestment, Moerenhout said; many other countries are in the same boat. But there’s one major actor that hasn’t underinvested, and has in fact leaned in on investments in a workforce and a project pipeline for critical minerals. And that, of course, is China.

Chinese companies are taking on much more risk than their competitors elsewhere, he added, both because of government backing, and because they tend to take a more medium-term outlook than many major global mining houses. And China also has far more geologists than the U.S. or any of the other major Western markets.

That's in part because over time the U.S. has imported progressively more minerals, not just from China but from other parts of the world as well, said Colin Williams, mineral resources program coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Given that the domestic mining industry has gotten smaller over time,” he added, “there have been fewer jobs, and fewer departments granting degrees in fields like economic geology or mining engineering.”

More tech, more challenges

While the demand for critical minerals is on the rise, so is demand for those materials to be sourced, extracted, and processed in more efficient, lower-cost, and lower-impact ways.

At Summit Nanotech, a Canadian startup developing technology to enable more sustainable lithium, vice president of geoscience and asset development Stefan Walter is experiencing the geoscientist shortage first-hand.

Walter, whose background is in petroleum geology, said the extraction industry is facing widespread demand to lower the amount of waste it generates, both via newer methods like Summit Nanotech’s and via more traditional ones. Everyone has increased responsibilities to decrease water use and their overall footprint, he said. 

And that means an even greater need for geoscientists, especially because the work is “highly technical.”

“There’s a certain amount of efficiency you can achieve without technical professionals," he said, "but to get to that next level and to really optimize, that’s where we have to bring in these specialists.”

One particular need is for hydrogeologists, who study groundwater movement. It’s a field that's growing extremely quickly in terms of demand — Walter himself is looking to hire hydrogeologists — but where there just isn’t enough supply in North America.

“The industry is growing at a pace that’s exceeding the available technical staff,” Walter said. “I do think you’re going to see a bit of an outstripping of the available supply of professionals, and hopefully that does guide some people’s degree selection, but at the end of the day I do think it’s going to be a pinch.”

Share of top three producing countries in mining of selected minerals, 2022 (Image credit: International Energy Agency)

Filling the gap

The impending shortage of geoscientists — and the potentially dire consequences — hasn’t gone unnoticed.

In 2022, both the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association and the United Kingdom Mining Education Forum published country-level reports of workforce shortages. In Australia, the mining industry is expecting a shortage of 24,000 workers by 2027, which the AREEA called “the worst skills crisis in a generation.” The U.K. report referred to the country’s own deficit as a “developing crisis in the supply of graduates into the industry,” which “threatens the maintenance of U.K. culture and national connectivity in this crucial industry.”

The industry is growing at a pace that’s exceeding the available technical staff....At the end of the day I do think it’s going to be a pinch.”
Stefan Walter, vice president of geoscience and asset development at Summit Nanotech

In July of this year, Copan testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources as part of a hearing on a bill that would establish a grant program to prop up mining education in the U.S.

He said the proposal, introduced by Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and John Barasso (R-Wyo.), is a good start, but the $10 million annual budget it would create represents a very small drop in the bucket, given how far behind the U.S. is already.

For context, he added, of the world’s top 25 universities for mining and mining engineering, just two are in the U.S. And while the U.S. had a total of 600 students enrolled in those programs in 2022, China had over 1.4 million.

Despite that proposed bill, and the Biden administration’s push to support domestic pipelines through the Inflation Reduction Act, Moerenhout said education remains an area that hasn’t received enough federal focus.

The IRA’s push to cut “foreign entities of concern” (like China) out of the U.S. energy transition supply chains may bring more attention to the education pipeline, he said. But the existence of such regulations doesn’t guarantee more students will sign up to study geoscience.

Moerenhout pointed to a phenomenon he dubs “lazy industrial policy,” which he said can be seen across different energy supply chains, from solar to batteries. Governments often hope that, as a result of local content requirements, “everything will fall into place” in an industry, he said. However, without additional incentives focused on the talent pipeline — like jobs, visas, and salary security — that is often wishful thinking. 

Meanwhile, there’s been a flurry of activity around potential tech-backed shortcuts that could make the labor shortage slightly less painful.

Williams, at USGS, pointed to artificial intelligence as an example that’s garnering immense excitement in the industry. While using AI for mineral discovery and exploration is still a relatively new phenomenon in the mining industry, there’s a “growing reliance” on data science expertise, Williams said.

“Instead of geologists going out there and looking at geophysical maps and the geology and the chemistry, this is all going to be run through artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he added. The ability to find “subtle signatures” of mineral deposits that humans couldn’t identify on their own is quickly becoming a central focus point, he said: “That is just exploding, there’s tremendous demand.”

And there’s a growing roster of both startups and industry oldtimers focusing on deploying AI for everything from predicting where minerals may be found to determining the stability of new minerals.

The reality remains, however, that no matter how quickly the U.S. ramps up exploration budgets, scholarships, or visa programs — and no matter how fast new tech is developed to help matters — the yearslong lead times for most mining projects are poised to be a barrier to the energy transition. Building up a pipeline will take a lot more time than people think, said Moerenhout.

“If you look at the demand rates by 2030 and 2035, you needed to have trained those people five years ago,” he said. “We’re definitely five past midnight rather than five to midnight on that one.”

Editor's note: This story was updated on January 3, 2024, to reflect that Stefan Walter's title is vice president of geoscience and asset development at Summit Nanotech, not director of geoscience.

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