Rich Patelke

Project Geologist, PolyMet Mining NorthMet Project

Carol Ormand interviewed Rich Patelke on 7 January, 2008. This interview is one in a collection intended to provide insights into the hiring needs of various geoscience employment sectors. We hope that knowing these needs will guide geoscience departments in preparing students for their future careers. For additional perspectives, please see the other interviews in the collection.

Jump Down To: Hiring Context | Desirable Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities | How to Stand Out from the Competition * Additional Comments

Hiring Context

PolyMet's NorthMet project is a development project. Its goal is the development of a Cu-Ni-Co-PGE (copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum group elements) mine in rocks of the Duluth Complex in northern Minnesota. While the existence of these deposits has been known for decades, recent technological advancements (and the purchase of an existing taconite plant when it ceased operations) have made the mining of these ores economically viable.

PolyMet's recent hires for the NorthMet project have been for jobs including geologic mapping, assaying ore, drilling, and collecting, processing, and warehousing ore samples. Developing a mine is a complex process. For example, drilling sites are chosen on the basis of both geological factors (regional geology, assay samples) and real-world constraints (topography, environment, access). Someone has to align the drill rigs and check on them regularly for quality control. Drill core is then collected and processed: inventoried, photographed, logged, cut and sampled.

Logging the core includes making appropriate structural measurements, lining the core (marking its orientation), and counting recovery (noting how much rock was recovered for each 10 foot interval of drilling) as well as extensive geologic description. All of this data is entered into various computer programs for further analysis, and the unused core is warehoused. Although the entering the data is not difficult, the data must be collected and transferred to computer carefully and accurately, as it is the basis for fundamental decisions to be made about the mining project.

Future hires for the NorthMet project will focus on mine operations. This will include mapping the mine (in three dimensions) as it grows, separating ore from various kinds of waste rock, environmental monitoring, and additional data compilation tasks. PolyMet faces a challenge in "institutionalizing" geologic data collection within the context of what is essentially a large manufacturing environment.

Desirable Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities

Geoscience knowledge

Some basic geoscience knowledge is essential for a geoscientist working in the mineral industry. For instance:
  • mineralogy and mineral chemistry
  • structural geology, including the ability to envision three-dimensional structures
  • igneous and metamorphic petrology
  • regional geology, or the ability to learn it quickly: field mapping and related skills, such as surveying

In addition, a solid background in chemistry and mathematics is key. In both cases, an intuitive understanding of what makes sense chemically or mathematically is at least as important as working out the correct numerical answer to a problem. In math, a high level of comfort with geostatistics is helpful.

Other skills and abilities

Geoscience knowledge, while essential, is not sufficient by itself. Rich also looks for students who
  • have the right attitude: they want to work. They're going to work hard, so they need to be ready for that.
  • can be self-sufficient, but also work well as part of a team.
  • can make decisions and take action based on incomplete data.
  • can work effectively with a wide variety of people. While many of the contractors they'll work with are not geoscientists, they are very good at what they do. Recognizing that and communicating well with non-geologists is essential.
  • are computer savvy, ready and willing to learn new applications. Much of the work at PolyMet involves collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data, often using multiple applications with each data set.

With those skills and attitudes, new employees will be able to learn the additional skills they need to learn on the job, including things as varied as computer applications and how drill rigs work.

How to Stand Out from the Competition

The strongest candidates are those who have everything we're looking for: they know the regional geology and have a strong work ethic, people skills, computer skills, and a desire to keep learning. I'm delighted when a candidate indicates that he or she understands that there's more to learn, both on job and on their own. Things that job applicants are often missing include an understanding of how a database (like Access) works and knowledge of a drafting program (such as AutoCAD, GIS, or even Illustrator). There is also a trend in many geoscience programs away from an emphasis on the classic geology core—mineralogy, petrology, mineral chemistry or geochemistry, structural geology, field geology... but these are the fundamental knowledge areas we rely on in mineral exploration. So candidates with the more traditional curriculum are at a distinct advantage applying for a job with us.

Additional Comments

Rich had a few more comments for anyone considering a career in the mining industry:
  1. My job as a "minerals geologist" is a blast. I work with people from all over the world, pretty much get to do what I want, make a good living, and honestly never know what I am going to do on any particular day.
  2. Exploration and mining are inherently rural jobs. So, if being in a big town is important, this is a bad choice.
  3. An extension of the previous point: your spouse or significant other has to be on board with the lifestyle. I go home to Duluth twice a week, sometimes less, seldom more, staying up here in Hoyt Lakes the rest of the time.
  4. Everything I know I owe to friends one way or the other. Other geologists up here have shown a lot of faith in me, and I have leaned on them a lot. Your colleagues are a great resource: respect and value them.
  5. Geology jobs in general, and specifically exploration jobs, are very "boom and bust". The good thing is that after one or two cycles, you are an expert.