How a Mining Engineer Does Money
Mike: Can you tell me about yourself?
Kerry: I’m a woman in my late twenties and I’m a mining engineer. I’m currently living in the U.K., but I’ve lived all over the world at this point: Canada, U.S., South America, Africa.
Mike: What’s your citizenship?
Kerry: Canadian. I went to school in Canada studying mining engineering and I was hired by a Canadian company when I finished school. They moved me around a bit. Now I’m with a different company, where I think things will be a bit more stable, moving around-wise.
Mike: Can you tell me what a mining engineer does and how you decided that was the career for you?
Kerry: Basically, I’ve always been on the more practical/science minded side. I thought I would be a doctor or something until I realized I didn’t have the dedication (or the stomach) for it. My family has some friends who are engineers who have done pretty well for themselves, so I figured I’d give engineering a shot.
My university did recruiting seminars for the mining program because it’s a pretty small department that no one has ever heard of. I was going to go into mechanical or civil, but the mining program offered credited four month paid work terms, so I figured, why not at the very least, if I hated it, most of the credits could be transferred to a different kind of engineering program. In the end, it turns out that I really liked the work.
The neat part about mining is that there’s something for everyone. If you’re into hands on stuff, you can go into operations at a site. If you’re more business minded, you can go work in finance after. You can work in ultra remote locations, or rural communities, or in a city. I started out working for a mining company, mostly doing mine planning stuff—designs and costing for mining projects based on geological data. I’ve worked at mine sites doing similar stuff but on a short range basis, so actually working with the miners and helping direct what areas they need to mine to make the mine (and the company’s) performance targets. That’s kind of the simple version, but there’s a lot of science and economics that goes into it.
Mike: What is the company mining for?
Kerry: Gold, copper.
Mike: How much do you earn as a mining engineer?
Kerry: My starting salary was $70,000 plus bonuses. I was also on an expat contract so I got a housing stipend (free rent and utilities) and a mobility bonus. When I worked in the States, I was making about $80,000 plus bonuses in a state with no state income tax. That’s considered low, by the way.
Mike: So it’s atypical? What’s typical?
Kerry: The salaries seem to be lower in the States. I have a theory that it’s because a lot of American mining engineers don’t really do much research into their market value. In Australia and Canada, with a few years experience you can easily surpass six figures. If you get work in Africa, same thing—especially because you get hardship bonuses for living in a camp in Africa. Depending on the working conditions and size of the company, I would probably expect an offer in the range of $120-$150K.
Mike: What are the benefits like?
Kerry: Hmm. Well in the States I had health insurance that I’ve been told was good. As a Canadian it’s hard to wrap my head around the idea that even paying anything for health care is a good deal, but I’ve been told it was a good plan. My 401(k) was a 4% standard payment, plus the company would match up to 5% of my own contributions, so I had 14% of my salary going into the 401(k), 5% of which was my own money. Prior to that there was a scheme where they were just putting 10% into a savings plan for me.
Mike: What about things like vacation or sick days? Is it easy to get time off?
Kerry: Yeah, my company was pretty good about that stuff actually. Everyone in Canada started with three weeks vacation and you could work from home in a pinch. In the States they started everyone off with two weeks vacation, but by the time I moved there I had three weeks. The work schedule in the States was four days on, three days off. Mines require a lot of coverage though, so if I was going to take time off, I had to make sure that there was someone that knew enough of what was going on to fill in for me. The schedule could be rough too—they were 10-hour days with a one-hour commute each way (transportation provided by the company). So lots of really early mornings. It was a bit tough to find time to do stuff during the week. As a single person this wasn’t a huge deal, but I think it could be a lot tougher with a family to look after. I could take sick days as needed—they weren’t tracked. It was a lot stricter for production people though because it’s more critical to have them around than an engineer. Most issues requiring an engineer could be handled over the phone if someone wasn’t on site.
Mike: You’ve lived a lot of places it seems, because of work. Do you have to relocate a lot?
Kerry: I have, but it’s been by choice, and being lucky enough to be offered the opportunities.
Mike: How do you see your career going in the long term? And where would you like to be?
Kerry: I’m not sure … some days I think I’d like to settle back into Canada and work for a big mining company’s head office, but sometimes I think it would be really exciting to go work for a small company and build something up, but that’s a lot riskier.
Mike: But you’re happy with mining, yes?
Mike: What do your living expenses look like?
Kerry: Well, when I lived in a mining town, I spent about $950/month on rent, plus another couple hundred dollars on utilities. I had to own a car, which I paid for cash out out of savings, so my expenses were about $200/month in gas. I probably spent about $300/month on groceries. Going out was cheap—I probably spent about $300/month in restaurants and bars. I think in all I was probably saving about $500 month. I did a lot of online shopping.
Mike: In a savings account?
Kerry: Mostly in my checking account, then every few months I would move some over to savings. I also managed to save a decent chunk of money when I lived in South America. When I worked in Africa I got bonuses, and managed to save money by living in a mining camp. A lot of that money went into a small stock portfolio.
Mike: Do you have savings goals?
Kerry: Sort of. For a while I wanted to save for a house, and I decided I needed $100K as a down payment (completely arbitrarily), but then I realized that I’m too nervous about taking on the responsibility that comes with owning a property. Now it’s just more of a game to see how much I can increase my net worth. My parents were big on not taking on debt for things, so I try to save in case some kind of change in circumstance requires me to spend a large amount of money on something—if that makes sense? So like, if I move somewhere where I need to by a car, I’m not worrying about how I’m going to fund that purchase, or moving expenses.
Mike: Do you have any debt?
Mike: Is not having debt something you actively think about? Did you ever have debt you had to pay off?
Kerry: No, I was incredibly lucky that my parents decided to pay for my education, so I never had to take out any loans for tuition. They also reinforced from an early age that credit card bills had to be paid off every month. So I’ve never taken out a loan or carried a credit card balance.
Mike: So your parents talked to you about money with you while you were growing up?
Kerry: Yeah. Both my parents have business backgrounds—my mom especially made sure to teach me about money because she ran a family business that involved managing money, both for herself and some other family members. They taught me about investing, and being tax efficient about things. Making sure you earn interest on savings at the very least! They’re both quite conservative financially as well. We never moved into a bigger house than we really needed, cars only got replaced when absolutely needed. No fancy clothing labels.
Mike: The Millionaire Next Door, essentially.
Kerry: Hah, yeah sort of. There were vacations though.
Mike: I would hope so!
Kerry: It’s funny because I love shopping, and get made fun of for having expensive tastes about things like beauty products, and hotels or whatever when I’m traveling. So I’m kind of the opposite of my parents, but a lot of their attitudes about money have stuck.
Mike: What do you mean by expensive tastes?
Kerry: Just like, I can go to the mall and easily drop a few hundred dollars between J. Crew, Sephora, and Nordstrom.
Mike: But you can also afford to do that, yes? It’s not like you’re spending money you don’t have?
Kerry: Yeah. I always make sure I don’t spend more than I make. But I always feel like I could be saving more, but then I see a sweater I have to have, so I buy it.
Mike: So much of this, though, I feel is just setting goals and then working out a plan to hit those goals. So if you can automate savings every month, you can then feel okay about spending the money that’s left on whatever it is that you want.
Kerry: Yeah. I got some automated savings things set up. I’ve tried budgeting in categories, but it generally doesn’t work very well because things can be so variable.
Mike: Oh yeah, totally, I get that. I don’t budget that way.
Kerry: In general I just try not to spend more than I make, and luckily I’ve ended up in an industry that pays well enough that I don’t really have to worry about how I’m going to pay for day-to-day stuff. Bonuses go straight to savings, so I try to keep that in mind when it seems like my bank balance is stagnating.
Mike: What does your social spending look like?
Kerry: Probably a few hundred dollars a month. When I lived in a small town in the U.S., that could go pretty far towards buying booze and stuff, but there wasn’t much else to do in town but get wasted. In the U.K., drinks are more expensive, and I’ve had to be careful because I socialize with people who like to buy bottles of wine, or rounds for everyone. So that can add up fast because I insist on taking a turn at paying.
Mike: What do your friends do?
Kerry: Mining engineers!
Mike: So everyone is basically on the same income level?
Kerry: Yeah. Give or take $10K. I think the difference comes in that some people are couples, so they end up having lower living expenses so they care less about a $50 round of drinks.
Mike: Are you dating or keeping single at the moment?
Kerry: Single. One of the downsides of moving around so much has been that it’s been tougher to meet people, or envision committing to someone when you don’t know where you’ll be living in six months. On the plus side, I’ve got friends all over the world at this point.
Mike: Do you want to stay in one place, and/or have children some day?
Kerry: Yeah. I kinda figure I’m getting all of the wanderlust out of my system now as a young single person because it will be a lot tougher to jump on opportunities when there’s a partner and kids to consider.
Mike: Is being single a boon in the mining field?
Kerry: Yes and no. It works well for fly-in fly-out work, which tend to be the higher paid expat jobs, but from a company’s perspective you’re more of a flight risk in terms of retention. For jobs that require moving to a community, having a family can be an asset because you’re considered less likely to just uproot your family at the first feelings of discontent.
Mike: Is mining engineering a particularly male-heavy field?
Kerry: Extremely male heavy!
Mike: I gathered so. Do you see challenges because of that?
Kerry: I’ve typically been only one of a handful of females, basically since university. Yes and no. I’ve heard stories of harassment and discrimination, but I’ve never really experienced it. I think the biggest challenge is just being heard in a room full of opinionated guys. But at the same time, I know there are times where people have cut me slack, or given me special treatment because I’m a woman.
Mike: But on a salary level, you think you’re getting what you deserve?
Kerry: Yeah, in my experience, mining people are relatively open about their salaries (or at least the range they’re in). I’ve always matched or surpassed guys in my cohort. Other women I’ve worked with have said they’ve been paid consistently less, but the labor market is such that I think it’s a lot easier to successfully negotiate a better salary if you aren’t afraid to ask for one.
Mike: And you have no problem asking for more if you feel like it’s justified?
Kerry: Yeah. Retention is such an issue though that I’ve never really needed to negotiate much. The offers have always been more than generous. Usually my negotiations have centered around things like professional development, and wanting to take on different roles when I’ve felt like it’s been time to move on,
Mike: So you haven’t really had an issue “leaning in” in the industry when you wanted to?
Kerry: I’m not sure…. I mean, I have had to adapt to the fact that it’s a male dominated field, like, put up with swearing, and sometimes inappropriate jokes. Guys talk about their girlfriends or whatever—nothing that falls into harassment categories, but it’s not an industry to be in if you’re easily offended about stuff.
Mike: It sounds like it can be a sticky situation if it’s ingrained in the work culture.
Kerry: Yeah. Most people are more professional than what my last statement makes it sounds like. I just want to make sure what I said earlier doesn’t make my co-workers seem like neanderthals—they’re actually smart, professional people. On the whole, I think I’m lucky that I’ve ended up in an incredibly dynamic industry with lots of opportunities.
Mike: Mining engineers are not neanderthals, everyone! Okay, so when it comes to money, what do you feel you’re really strong at and what would you like to work more on?
Kerry: I think I’m good at being efficient with the money I do save, in terms of making sure it’s invested, or earning interest. I always pay my credit card bills. I’m trying to work on the impulse buying, partly for financial reasons, and also because I’m trying to be more ethical about my consumption. My impulse purchases tend to be pretty wasteful (clothes I don’t wear, books I don’t get around to reading, etc). As someone who is fully conscious of what kind of resources go into making things (and their finite-ness in some cases), I feel bad when I realize that I’ve spent money on something that took energy and materials to make and I haven’t used it and it will eventually take up space in a landfill or something.
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Photo: Rene Schwietzke