Degree Fields
State Portals
Industry Options
Precollege Ideas
Academic DegreesCareer Planning
University Choice
Diversity & WomenCornerstone News
Site Search / A -Z


Industry Overview
The United States has been endowed with a wealth of natural resources that have fostered its growth and development. In the past, the discovery of resources such as gold and oil has resulted in major population shifts and rapid growth for formerly remote regions of the country, such as California, Texas, and Alaska. Extraction of these resources, and finding new deposits, is the work of the mining industry, which continues to provide the foundation for local economies in some regions.

Products of the mining industry generate the majority of energy used in this country, from electricity in homes to fuel in vehicles. Mined resources also serve as inputs for consumer goods and the processes and services provided by nearly all other industries, particularly in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, utilities, communication, and construction. Uses of mined materials include coal, oil, and gas for energy, copper for wiring, gold for satellites and sophisticated electronic components, stone and gravel for construction of roads and buildings, and a variety of other minerals as ingredients in medicines and household products.

The mining industry contains five main industry segments, which are defined by the resources they produce: oil and gas extraction, coal mining, metal ore mining, nonmetallic mineral mining and quarrying, and support activities for mining.

Oil and Gas Extraction
The oil and gas extraction segment produces the petroleum and natural gas that heat homes, fuel cars, and power factories. Petroleum products are also the raw materials for plastics, chemicals, medicines, fertilizers, and synthetic fibers. Petroleum, commonly called crude oil or just oil, is a liquid formed under ground from the decay of plants and animals over millions of years through extreme heat and pressure. Occasionally, this decaying material becomes trapped under a layer of impermeable rock that prevents it from dispersing and creates a pocket of oil. Similar processes also produce natural gas, which can be found mixed with oil or in separate deposits. Finding and extracting the oil and gas in these pockets is the primary function of this industry segment.

Using a variety of methods, on land and at sea, small crews of specialized workers search for geologic formations that are likely to contain pockets of oil or gas. Sophisticated equipment and advances in computer technology have increased the productivity of exploration. Maps of potential deposits now are made using remote-sensing satellites. Seismic prospecting -- a technique based on measuring the time it takes sound waves to travel through underground formations and return to the surface -- has revolutionized oil and gas exploration. Computers and advanced software analyze seismic data to provide three-dimensional models of subsurface rock formations. Another method of searching for oil and gas is based on collecting and analyzing core samples of rock, clay, and sand in the earth's layers.

After scientific exploration studies indicate the possible presence of oil, a well must be drilled to prove oil is there. An oil company selects a well site and installs a derrick -- a tower-like steel structure -- to support the drilling equipment. A hole is drilled deep into the earth until oil or gas is found, or the company abandons the effort. Similar techniques are employed in offshore drilling, except that the drilling equipment is part of a steel platform that either sits on the ocean floor, or floats on the surface and is anchored to the ocean floor. Advancements in directional or horizontal drilling techniques, which allow increased access to potential reserves, have had a significant impact on drilling capabilities. Drilling begins vertically, but the drill bit can be turned so that drilling can continue at an angle of up to 90 degrees. This technique extends the drill's reach, enabling it to reach separate pockets of oil or gas. Because constructing new platforms is costly, this technique commonly is employed by offshore drilling operations.

Once the drilling reaches the oil or gas, extraction can begin as natural pressure forces the oil or gas up through the drill hole to the wellhead, where it enters separation and storage tanks. If natural pressure is not great enough to force the oil to the surface, pumps may be used. In some cases, water, steam, or gas may be injected into the oil deposit to improve recovery. The recovered oil is transported to refineries by pipeline, ship, barge, truck, or railroad. Natural gas usually is transported to processing plants by pipeline. While oil refineries may be many thousands of miles away from the producing fields, gas processing plants typically are near the fields, so that impurities -- water, sulfur, and natural gas liquids -- can be removed before the gas is piped to customers. The oil refining industry is considered a separate industry, and its activities are not covered here, even though many oil companies both extract and refine oil.

Coal Mining
The coal mining industry segment produces coal, a fossil fuel that is used primarily for electric power generation and in the production of steel. Like oil, coal is formed over millions of years from plant and animal matter, but unlike oil, coal is a solid, and therefore miners must go into the earth to recover it. Many coal seams are located close to the surface, however, which makes the extraction of this resource easier.

Surface mining of coal typically uses the method known as strip mining, which is usually more cost-effective than underground mining and requires fewer workers to produce the same quantity of coal. In strip mining, workers use huge earthmoving equipment, such as power shovels or draglines, to scoop off the layers of soil and rock covering the coal seam. Once the coal is exposed, it is broken up by using explosives, and then smaller shovels lift it from the ground and load it into trucks. Mining companies are required by Federal, State, and local laws to restore the mined land after surface mining is completed; as a result, the overburden and topsoil are stored after removal so that they can be replaced and native vegetation replanted.

Underground mining is used when the coal deposit lies deep below the surface of the earth. When developing an underground mine, miners first must dig tunnels deep into the earth near the place where the coal is located. Depending on where the coal seam is in relation to the surface, tunnels may be vertical, horizontal, or sloping. Entries are constructed so that miners can get themselves and their equipment to the ore and carry it out, while allowing fresh air to enter the mine. Once dug to the proper depth, a mine's tunnels interconnect with a network of passageways going in many directions. Using the room-and-pillar method, miners remove sections of the coal as they work the coal seam from the tunnel entrance to the edge of the mine property, leaving columns of coal in place to help support the ceiling together with long steel bolts. This process is then reversed, and the remainder of the ore is extracted, as the miners work their way back out. In the case of longwall mining of coal, self-advancing roof supports, made of hydraulic jacks and metal plates, cover the area being mined. As coal is removed, the entire apparatus advances, allowing the ceiling in the mined area to cave in as the miners work back towards the tunnel entrance. Underground mining does not require as extensive a reclamation process as surface mining; however, mine operators and environmental engineers still must ensure that ground water remains uncontaminated and that abandoned mines do not collapse.

Metal Ore Mining
The metal ore mining industry segment covers the extraction of metal ores, primarily gold, silver, iron, copper, lead, and zinc. These naturally occurring minerals have a variety of industrial purposes: gold and silver are primarily used in jewelry and high-end electronics, iron is used to produce steel, copper is the main component of electrical wiring, lead is used in batteries, and zinc is used to coat iron and steel to reduce corrosion and as an alloy in the making of bronze and brass.

Most metals do not exist in concentrated form but rather in small traces in rock called "ore". Indistinguishable from regular rocks to the untrained eye, some ores are currently mined that contain only a fraction of a percent of metal. As a result, a massive amount of rock must be extracted from the ground in order to obtain a useable amount of metal. As a result of this, and because metal ores are less common than coal, metal mines can be much larger than coal mines and operate in more extreme environments -- while coal mines are rarely more than a few hundred feet underground, gold mines can be over a mile below the surface.

Like coal mines, metal ore mines are found in both surface and underground varieties, depending on where the ore deposit is located. In addition to strip mining, surface ore mines also use the open-pit mining technique. These mines are huge holes in the ground that are mined by blasting rock from the sides and bottom with explosives, carrying out the broken up material in trucks, and then repeating the process. Open pit mines can grow to be hundreds of feet deep and several miles wide. Underground mining of ore is less common, typically only occurring when rich veins of ore are discovered or mineral prices are high enough to justify the added expense.

A significant amount of processing is needed to convert ore into usable metal. The mining industry includes initial mineral processing and preparation activities that are located together with mines as part of the extraction process. Further processing is classified under the primary metal manufacturing industry.

Nonmetallic Mineral Mining and Quarrying
The nonmetallic mineral mining and quarrying industry segment covers a wide range of mineral extraction. The majority of the industry produces crushed stone, sand, and gravel for use in construction of roads and buildings. Other important minerals produced are clays, primarily for ceramics, water filtration, and cement making; gypsum, the primary material used in wallboard; salt, used in foodstuffs and as an ice remover; phosphate, for use in fertilizers; and sulfur, the main component of sulfuric acid, a major industrial input. Most of these minerals are found in abundance close to the surface, so underground mining is uncommon in this industry segment.

Surface mining for stone is also known as "quarrying". In quarrying operations, workers use machines to extract the stone. Stone -- primarily granite and limestone -- is quarried by using explosives to break material off from a massive rock surface. The resulting rocks are crushed further and shipped off for the production of asphalt or concrete. Some high-quality stone, such as marble and certain types of granite, is quarried in large blocks, known as dimension stone, and used as a building material by itself.

Support Activities for Mining
The final industry segment is support activities for mining. The activities of this industry are often the same as those of the other industry segments, but the work is done by contract companies that specialize in one aspect of resource extraction. For example, the majority of drilling for new oil wells is done by specialty drilling companies; other support companies specialize in exploration for new resource deposits or operation of offshore oil rigs.

Recent Developments
Many resources produced by the mining industry, particularly metals, oil, and gas, are relatively rare and are part of a global market that is highly sensitive to changes in prices. During the 1990s, commodity prices were relatively stable at low levels, causing production to stagnate and limiting the creation of new drilling and mining operations. In recent years, prices have increased dramatically, and exploration and production has likewise risen. Coal is less susceptible to world market conditions, but it also has seen price increases in recent years that have led to expanded production. Demand for nonmetallic minerals is primarily affected by the level of activity in the construction industry, particularly the building of new roads and highways.

Employment in the mining industry has been affected significantly by new technology and more sophisticated mining techniques that increase productivity. Most mining machines and control rooms are now automatic or computer-controlled, requiring fewer, if any, human operators. Many mines also operate with other sophisticated technology such as lasers and robotics, which further increases the efficiency of resource extraction. As a result, mine employment has been falling over time, particularly of workers who are involved in the extraction process itself. These new technologies and techniques have also increased specialization in the industry and led to expanded use of contract mining services companies for specific tasks. These companies also allow mining firms to more easily adjust production levels in response to changes in commodity prices.

Working Environment 
Work schedules in the mining industry can vary widely. Some sites operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, particularly in oil and gas extraction and underground mines. This creates the opportunity for some mining workers to work long shifts several days in a row, and then have several days off. The remote location of some sites, such as offshore oil rigs, requires some workers to actually live onsite for weeks at a time, often working 12 hour shifts, followed by an extended leave period onshore. As a result of these conditions, part-time opportunities are rare in this industry, but overtime is common; less than 3 percent of workers were part-time employees in 2008, while almost half worked over 40 hours per week, and 36 percent worked over 50 hours per week. The average work week for a production worker in mining was 45.3 hours.

Work environments vary by occupation. Scientists and technicians work in office buildings and laboratories, as do executives and administrative and clerical workers. Engineers and managers usually split their time between offices and the mine or well site, where construction and extraction workers spend most of their time. Geologists who specialize in the exploration of natural resources to locate resource deposits may have to travel for extended periods to remote locations, in all types of climates.

Mine safety is regulated by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and successive additional legislation, which has resulted in steadily declining rates of mining injuries and illnesses. Increased automation of mining and oil well operations has also reduced the number of workers needed in some of the more dangerous activities. As a result, workers in this industry do not experience more work-related injuries and illnesses than average.

There were approximately 717,000 wage and salary jobs in the mining industry in 2008; around 161,600 were in oil and gas extraction, 80,600 in coal mining, 39,900 in metal mining, and 107,200 in nonmetallic mineral mining. Not included in these figures are the thousands of Americans who work abroad for U.S. companies conducting mining or drilling operations around the world. In addition to those employed directly by mining companies, there were also 327,700 jobs in the support activities for mining industry segment.

Mining jobs are heavily concentrated in the parts of the country where large resource deposits exist. Three out of 4 jobs in the oil and gas extraction industry are located in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Although there were almost 1,400 coal mining operations in 26 States in 2007, over two-thirds of all coal mines, and over half of all mine employees, were located in just three States -- Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, according to the Energy Information Administration. Other States employing large numbers of coal miners are Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, and Wyoming. Metal mining is more prevalent in the West and Southwest, particularly in Arizona, Nevada, and Montana, and iron ore mining in Minnesota and Michigan. Nonmetallic mineral mining is the most widespread, as quarrying of nonmetallic minerals, such as stone, clay, sand, and gravel, is done in nearly every State. In many rural areas, mining operations are the main employer. About 79 percent of mining establishments employ fewer than 20 workers.

Degree Paths into this Industry
The majority of jobs in the mining industry are in construction and extraction occupations. Management, business, and financial and professional and related occupations also are important to the mining industry. Administrative workers include top executives, who are responsible for making policy decisions. Staff specialists (such as accountants, attorneys, and market researchers) provide information and advice for policymakers.

Professional and related workers in mining include engineering, scientific, and technical personnel. Before any mining can actually begin, a deposit of the resource needs to be found. This is the primary work of geologists and geological and petroleum technicians, who travel around the world using tools such as seismic data and core samples to locate deposits of sufficient size and purity for extraction.

Petroleum engineers and mining and geological engineers then formulate the general plan for how the mining operation will be undertaken. They design, with drafters and engineering technicians, the general structure of the well or mine, and the most efficient method of extraction. These engineers generally supervise mine and well activities throughout the entire lifecycle of the project, troubleshooting any problems and ensuring smooth operations. They also work with environmental engineers, who ensure that mine or well sites meet stringent Federal, State, and local regulations.

Environmental regulations make obtaining permits for new projects increasingly difficult and impose substantial penalties should projects fail to meet standards, making proper environmental remediation a necessity for any mining operation. Environmental engineers also plan reclamation projects when product extraction is complete. Other engineers who ensure smooth working operations include industrial engineers, who manage the use of workers and equipment for optimum productivity, and mechanical engineers, who ensure that complicated systems for cooling and ventilation are designed and constructed properly.

Exploration, mine design, impact assessment, and restoration efforts can depend on computer analysis. In addition, rapid technological advancements, particularly in processing-plant operations, are the result of increased computerization. This has led to a growing reliance on computer professionals, such as systems analysts, computer software engineers, and computer scientists.

Industry Forecast
Employment in mining is projected to decrease. The growing U.S. and world economies will continue to demand larger quantities of the raw materials produced by mining, but the increased output will be able to be met by new technologies and new extraction techniques that increase productivity and require fewer workers.

Wage and salary employment in mining is expected to decline by 14 percent through the year 2018, compared with 11 percent growth projected for the entire economy. Mining production is tied closely with prices and demand for the raw materials produced, and as prices for oil, gas, and metals have risen rapidly in recent years, production and employment in the industry have also grown. In the short term, employment may fluctuate due to changes in prices, but over the course of the projections period, technological advances will increase productivity and cause employment declines in the mining industry as a whole.

Petroleum and natural gas exploration and development in the United States depends upon prices for these resources and the size of accessible reserves. Stable and favorable prices are needed to allow companies enough revenue to expand exploration and production projects. Rising worldwide demand for oil and gas -- particularly from developing countries such as India and China -- is likely to cause prices to remain elevated and generate the needed incentive for oil and gas producers to continue exploring and developing oil and gas reserves. U.S. reserves of oil and gas should remain adequate to support continued production through 2018. However, environmental concerns, accompanied by strict regulation and limited access to protected Federal lands, also continue to have a major impact on this industry. Restrictions on drilling in environmentally sensitive areas and other environmental constraints should continue to limit exploration and development, both onshore and offshore.

In addition to resource availability, new production technologies also will impact employment in the industry. New drilling and extraction techniques allow for more efficient production from a reduced number of drill sites. As a result, employment in oil and gas extraction is expected to decline by 16 percent through 2018. However, changes in policy could expand exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas in currently protected areas, potentially boosting employment.

Demand for coal will increase as coal remains the primary fuel source for electricity generation. Although environmental concerns exist regarding coal power -- burning coal releases pollutants and carbon dioxide -- few alternatives exist on a scale large enough to meet the fuel demand of utilities. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, but coal power plants equipped with scrubbers reduce this disadvantage, and natural gas prices have been more volatile than coal prices in recent years. Future increased use of nuclear power or renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, could reduce demand for coal, but over the projection period neither is expected to increase rapidly enough to contribute significantly to U.S. energy supplies.

Environmental concerns will continue to affect mining operations. Increasingly, government regulations are restricting access to land and restricting the type of mining that is performed in order to protect native plants and animals and decrease the amount of water and air pollution. As population growth expands further into the countryside, new developments compete with mine operators for land, and residents are increasing their opposition to nearby mining activities. These concerns, together with depletion of the most accessible coal deposits in the East, will result in a shift in coal production. Coal mining will increase in the Central, and particularly the Western, United States and decrease in the East. Overall, coal mining employment is expected to grow by 4 percent as rising demand for coal is coupled with limited productivity gains from more efficient and automated production operations.

Employment in mining for metal ores is expected to decline by 10 percent through 2018. Because metals are used primarily as raw materials by other industries, such as telecommunications, construction, steel, aerospace, and automobile manufacturing, the strength of the metal ore mining industry is greatly affected by the strength of these industries. Most metals are sold and bought in a world market, so demand stems not only from domestic industries but also from fast growing industries in developing countries. Demand from these countries has caused prices for many metals to increase substantially in recent years. This has caused U.S. mining companies to expand production at existing mines and restart production at some mines that were closed when low metal prices made them unprofitable. However, in the long term the potential stabilization of prices together with many of the same environmental concerns as in coal mining will cause employment in metal ore mining to decline.

Nonmetallic mineral mining should experience little change in employment. Although demand will continue to increase for crushed stone, sand, and gravel used in construction activities, advances in mining technology will require fewer workers for operation and maintenance of new mining machines. Like the metal ore mining industry, the nonmetallic mineral mining industry is influenced by the strength of the industries that use its outputs in the manufacture of their products. Nonmetallic minerals are used to make concrete and asphalt for road construction and also as materials in residential and nonresidential building construction.

Transportation costs for stone, sand, and gravel are high, so mining of these materials is spread across the country, making it not as susceptible to industry consolidation. This geographical spread, together with the small size of many mines, also causes some mines to operate only during warm months. Many workers laid off during the winter find jobs in other industries and must be replaced when the mines reopen. Jobs in nonmetallic mineral mining attract many migrant workers and those looking for summer employment.

Despite an overall decline in mining industry employment, there will be job opportunities in most occupations due to the need to replace workers who leave the industry. A large number of workers, particularly in the professional occupations, will become eligible for retirement in the coming years, and some companies may have trouble coping with the loss of many experienced workers to retirement at a time when the industry is expanding production. At the same time, past declines in employment in the industry have dissuaded potential workers from considering employment in the industry, and many colleges and universities have shut down programs designed to train professionals for work in mining. Employment opportunities will be best for those with previous experience and with technical skills, especially qualified professionals and extraction workers who have experience in oil field operations and who can work with new technology. 

Related Degree Fields

Professional Associations/Resources

Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.



      AboutContactsCopyrightMedia SupportSubscriptions