YES, the miners, geologists and mining engineers in this country are leaving en masse. The sooner our policymakers in both the private and public sectors realize the gravity of this situation, the better.
The country badly needs these people especially at this time. Geologists scour the mountains, the plains, rivers and the ocean floor to find the minerals, oil and natural gas needed by mankind for survival, growth and progress.
The world is riding a minerals boom owing to rising demand from the Asia-Pacific Region, particularly China and India. This boom is propping up a lot of economies throughout the region. Australia, a major exporter of coal and iron ore, is growing fast because of this boom. And if the Philippines wants to ride this growth bandwagon to boost the Philippine economy, we better have enough of these mining professionals home.
Of course, prices of fossil fuels have been high since the last three years. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) thought all along that crude oil costing beyond $28 a barrel could break the back of the global economy. Late last year, the crude prices reached as high as $75 a barrel and the global economy remained strong. That means Opec and other major producers are likely to try maintaining high prices.
What this means is that finding our own oil or its substitute like natural gas remains a paramount concern. The Philippines right now is a minor player in the petroleum industry. That’s because for so long we have neglected investments in oil and gas exploration. Again, we can only gain headway if we have enough geoscientists in the country.
Besides needing them for lucrative economic sectors, we also need geologists to determine where the geohazards are. The country is prone to natural calamities like volcanic eruptions and landslides; specific and accurate information about these dangerous places are necessary to prevent or, at least, mitigate these disasters. And most of all, the information generated by geologists on the nature of the soils and rock formation beneath are the foundations with which engineers and builders make their decisions. Without geologists or geoscientists, engineers and architects wouldn’t have any idea whether or not the structures they designed and build would collapse once the quake or the strong winds come.
That’s how important geologists are and yet they are leaving in droves. These days many of the geoscientists at the Mines and GeoSciences Bureau and the Philippine Institute for Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) are gone, either temporarily or permanently. Right now, many companies that invested in the government’s 24 priority mine projects are into exploration and development. Managers of these companies are experiencing an acute lack of geologists and mining engineers. Worse, only three schools—University of the Philippines, Mapua University and Adamson University—teach geology and even the teachers and professors are being lured away by high-paying jobs abroad, particularly in China, Indonesia, Guyana, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada, Thailand, Vietnam, Bulgaria and Papua New Guinea.
“We have come to a point where we get paranoid about sending our geologists to conferences. We have this constant fear they are not going to return,” said one mining executive. That’s how acute the problem is and it’s likely to get worse three or four years from now when many of the new mining investments start production.
Well, the good news is this: Filipino geologists are so good that global companies are so eager to hire them. Unlike geology graduates from rich countries, Filipino geologists are used to working in “Third-World” conditions. Filipino geoscientists write and speak good English, a major advantage. This is important because they are supposed to regularly inform their company’s board of directors about their field activities, and good language skills are extremely necessary—especially when writing technical stuff. And they work so hard. In fact, from 1980 until 1990 alone, 69 Filipino geologists are credited to have made 40 major discoveries worldwide worth $469 billion.
Local companies are addressing the problem by throwing money at Filipino geologists. There is talk that smart fresh geology graduates right now can get as much as P120,000 a month. And yet, the diaspora has not abated. Other countries like Australia are also throwing money around just to get good people, but are offering more: citizenships for Filipino geologists and many others. Having everybody screaming for more geoscientists is bidding up the prize money so they could have their own fill of geoscientists to run their own companies.
This problem will only get worse before it gets better. The Philippines could not possibly win this bidding war for talents. Besides, geology as hard science is a difficult and expensive course. Unlike nursing where someone who is not afraid to see blood could probably enroll, only students who loves mathematics, chemistry and physics are likely to survive geology’s rigors. More so because students are always trekking up and down mountains and valleys as part of their laboratory courses. Obviously, it doesn’t have the glamour of information technology courses whose graduates are bound to wear coat and ties and work in air-conditioned offices.
Nevertheless, we could probably institute measures to help ensure a stable supply of geoscientists. For instance, to keep the good professors home, the Chamber of Mines and private companies should explore engaging the participation of the faculty and staff of UP, Adamson and Mapua in their research and development, as well as in the exploration stages of their operations. That would provide additional incentives for these talents to remain in the universities. They could also have tie-ups for visiting professorships. Opportunities for travel and professional exchanges would help ensure that local talents maintain their edge.
To raise enrollment, mining companies and the Chamber of Mines should also offer scholarships to smart high-school students. In the last five years, science high schools have been proliferating all over the country. The private sector should approach these schools for possible recruits into the geology departments of our universities. High-school students are probably not aware of the opportunities in the geosciences. An extensive information-dissemination campaign would go a long way in solving the problem.