Colorado School of Mines’ No. 1 world-ranked mining engineering program has received a historic $7.5 million investment from alum J. Steven Whisler and his wife Ardyce, of Whitefish, Mont. It’s one of the program’s largest gifts since Mines was established in 1874 to support Colorado’s booming mining industry.
“Mines has the best mining engineering program in the world, and Ardy and I are pleased to provide meaningful support to create an even better mining engineering educational experience for students,” said Steve Whisler, a retired mining executive who earned a master’s degree in mineral economics at Mines in 1984 and received an honorary doctorate in engineering in 2001.
The investment creates the J. Steven Whisler Chair for the Head of Mining Engineering, the J. Steven Whisler Professor of Practice and the J. Steven Whisler Scholars Program, which funds scholarships for mining engineering students.
“We want to support the department’s evolution under a visionary leader and a faculty member who will develop and lead forward-looking strategic initiatives, while giving students financial support to enable them to pursue careers in the mining industry,” he said.
As the need for mining expertise grows, the number of graduates is shrinking
The Whislers’ investment comes as the number of U.S. mining engineering students is shrinking—by nearly half from 1,449 in 2015 to 736 in 2020, according to a story in the December 2021 issue of Mining Engineering. And, fewer than 200 students on average are graduating each year.
As a result, there simply are not enough graduates with expertise to meet the rapidly escalating demand for minerals and materials used in construction, transportation, electronics and energy production, or to address the coming onslaught of retirements across industry and academia. In the United States alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects about 500 mining and geologic engineer jobs openings each year for the next decade.
“Mining companies not only have to compete among ourselves for the best talent, but with other industries such as tech firms in the Silicon Valley,” Whisler said. “It’s critical that we continue to create a positive reputation and work environment for the industry that will attract and retain new talent to the profession.”
He said Mines students go through a trial by fire that prepares them for a career that requires resilience.
“They have a stick-to-it attitude that’s refreshing,” he said. “Mining today depends on people who are prepared to work on a problem until they solve it. That’s what I’ve seen Mines graduates do, and do well.”
Whisler spent his career in the mining industry, working his way up from a summer intern to chairman and CEO of Phelps Dodge Corporation, where he retired in 2007 after overseeing the company’s $26 billion sale to Freeport-McMoRan Inc.
He said today’s mining engineers must develop nuanced business acumen alongside their technical aptitude, and that he is impressed that Mines is integrating business education throughout its curriculum.
“The industry needs engineers who possess not only the necessary technical qualifications but also have contemporary and astute cost/benefit analysis and problem-solving skills to assess mineral production opportunities both from a company viewpoint and, as importantly, a societal perspective,” he said. “This is particularly important as the production of key minerals will drive and ultimately determine the success of the world’s alternative energy policies and strategies.”
The gift is a catalyst for Mines’ vision for the future of mining education
Mines president Dr. Paul C. Johnson said the Whislers’ historic investment gives the department resources to be the exemplar and leader that all other universities will want to emulate, not only because of the quality of its graduates, but also because its expertise and education align with industry’s future needs.
“The mining engineering program’s world-renowned reputation reflects our graduates’ capabilities and successes, the program’s strong connection and relevance to industry, our faculty’s expertise and leadership and the program’s unique resources, such as the Edgar Mine,” he said. “The Whislers’ support shines a spotlight on our program and will catalyze its evolution in a way that could not happen without it.”
Johnson said the gift will continue to elevate Mines as top-of-mind and first-choice for industry, students and faculty.
“Their gift will help Mines produce more technical and business leaders for industry and government than any other mining engineering program, including PhD graduates to fill faculty positions in other schools’ mining programs,” he said. “We want to produce the next generations of future-looking leaders like Steve Whisler.”
Mines will celebrate the Whislers’ gift on Feb. 28, 2023, during the Society of Mining Engineering’s Annual Conference, 5:30 pm at the Hyatt Downtown Denver.