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Drillers hot commodity in mining market.

Mare Plante and Chris Grainger are hot commodities right now.

The two Cambrian College trainees were eyeing some promising job prospects in mid-November as they wrapped up their last day at NORCAT's Underground Training Centre on their way to becoming certified underground diamond drill assistants.

After forking over $3,600 for the one-month 'helper level' course and fulfilling the provincially required 160 hours of training at the retired Falconbridge Fecunis Mine, both know they will be in high demand by drilling companies once they get a year's real-world experience under their belts.

With base and precious metal prices at their cyclical peak and frenzied exploration activity across Northern Ontario and northern Canada, the industry is screaming for underground and surface drillers.

For those qualified as driller helpers or full-fledged drillers (runners), the opportunity to travel the world while making a small fortune in a few short months is a big incentive.

Plante's eyes lit up when his brother's neighbour returned from a six-month diamond drill placement in Syria with $180,000 in his pocket.

"Depending on where you go, the more volatile the country, the higher the pay is," says Plante, 43, who decided to leave his job as an environmental technologist with a Sudbury mining supply company. "It's tempting, very tempting."

Married with grown kids, the Sudbury resident felt the time was right for a change.

The possibility of earning $60,000 to $70,000 working four months at an overseas mining camp in Africa, Chile or Peru, then taking two months of quality time off during the best months of the summer back home in Sudbury, was very appealing to Plante.

After corresponding by e-mail with Envirodrill Ltd., a major British drilling company, on his impending availability, they were ready to send him to Malawi, Africa.

Instead, he is considering a year's apprenticeship toward becoming a fully-qualified driller in Red Lake, Ont.'s exploration hotbed, before striking out on his own for jobs abroad.

"I'll go pretty well anywhere," says Plante. "Once you're a driller, the opportunities are wide open."

Grainger was introduced to diamond drilling through a geologist friend at Inco, after working for five years in construction labour in Canmore, Alta.

The goateed 29-year-old admits with so much work available, he can pick and choose his job.

"I'm at a point where I can afford to be picky," says the Moncton, N.B. native whose affinity for working in the deep wilderness means he will accept only fly-in/fly-out work.

"I'm going to put my resume at all the (drilling) companies, tell them I want camp jobs and (prefer to) stay underground ... and wait for the right job to appear."

"If you want to go to work, there's work everywhere," says Don Seguin, NORCAT's supervisor of diamond drill instruction, who previously worked overseas as a diamond driller in South Africa.

Even for someone "who's never seen a darn drill in his life and is young" about 19 or 20 years old-drilling companies will start them off at $15 an hour.

Within a year, if they show mechanical inclination and a good conceptual understanding of diamond drilling, Seguin says they're into the $20/hour range as a certified driller with full benefits and bonuses, depending upon the company.

Though it is difficult to determine how great the industry shortage of drillers is, since most Canadian drilling outfits usually recruit and train their own workforce internally, the demand seems great enough to convince Cambrian College to recently start offering entry-level (common core) training for drilling companies or individuals interested in the profession at their Onaping underground facility, northwest of Sudbury.

The college plans to offer a one-month surface drilling course in early 2005.

"We give them a month's experience to get their foot in the door," says Dennis Shannon, NORCAT's mine manager and head of the mine training program, "and give them their initial basic training to work with someone as a helper and start off with some degree of knowledge."

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While the college's other introductory mining course has been very successful, the drillers course has not yet translated to a flood of applicants coming forth--only four trainees since August-despite the multitude of job opportunities available.

"What (drilling companies) are advertising for is experience and that takes years," says Shannon, who adds that it reminds him about the discussion about the shortage of transport truck drivers.

"They would like someone on that drill bit with five years' experience and can make money for them."

Heath and Sherwood, the rapidly expanding 161-employee Kirkland Lake-based drilling company, has gone from operating 10 drill rigs in Northern Ontario to 30 in the last year-and-half, with 14 rigs working locally on an exploration campaign with Kirkland Lake Gold.

Andy Attwater, manager of human resources, safety and training, says trainees start off at $13 an hour during the training period before being boosted to $14.50 plus bonuses once they are assigned to a drill rig as a helper.

Boart Longyear, one of the world's largest drilling companies, set up a surface training school in Haileybury this year to internally train its workforce.

Safety trainer Jacques Guerin, a former Cambrian College instructor, estimates in the past four months more than 100 students have taken their eight-day common core course, which covers drill core recovery and a safety program, which involves an introduction to support equipment such as skidders, chain saws and ATVs.

With six to eight trainees per class, Guerin says they are booked solid and are receiving applicants from across Canada, some with experience in mining while others are fresh out of college or high school.

There is no charge for the course and the company will even pay for accommodations for out-of-towners.

With operations in mining camps around the world, the company is looking for mechanically inclined people who love the outdoors, since most work involves surface work in bush camps.

Though there is no guarantee of a job, "about 99 per cent" of graduates find job opportunities within the company, Guerin says.

Successful entry-level drillers with the company can expect to work six weeks at a stretch, 12-hours a day, pulling in as much as $4,000 per month as a driller's helper.

www.norcat.org

By IAN ROSS

Northern Ontario Business
COPYRIGHT 2004 Laurentian Business Publishing, Inc.
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Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:MINING REPORT
Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:1044
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