This spring, some high school grads in Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Nevada may see some good job prospects.
The recent spike in metal prices, combined with a shortage of miners, means mining companies are hiring. So some teens are opting not to go to college, and instead are heading underground.
But these high-paying jobs also come at a high cost.
An Educator Questions His Own Path
Don Kotschevar teaches high school in the small town of Mullan in north Idaho's remote Silver Valley. He is the assistant principal, basketball coach and shop teacher. Lately, Kotschevar has been questioning his own career path. He watches his students parlay the skills he teaches them in this industrial mechanics class into lucrative mining jobs.
"Some of them, in the first six, eight months, their salaries absolutely crush mine," Kotschevar says. Entry-level mine jobs can pay $50,000 a year. Kotschevar has been thinking he could get a similar offer from local mine bosses.
"You know, I've got nine more years, so I can get my retirement here, and then when I retire I'll probably go to see if they'll hire me. Hopefully I won't be too old," he says. "I've been in teaching — I need to have a retirement plan."
The price of silver ore coming out of north Idaho suddenly makes that possible. After a long bust, this boom has mining companies wooing workers.
Kotschevar's son, Hunter, is one of those being courted by local mines. Hunter is in his father's shop class, too. It's a small town.
"Crew bosses, they said that they can get me jobs for, like, the summer when I turn 18, but I don't want to risk it," Hunter says. "The cave-ins and everything kind of scared me."
High-Paying Jobs, High Cost
Hunter is talking about a pair of fatalities last year at the Lucky Friday Mine just a mile from his high school. Because of the risks, mining companies are offering incentives. Many people's paychecks have remained stagnant — or disappeared — in this area over the past few years. But mining salaries have risen. The average mine worker in the Silver Valley now makes $70,000 — some make six figures.
Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. was one of three mining companies that held recruitment fairs on the same day last month in Idaho's Silver Valley. Nick Tompkins is the director for talent acquisition at the company. "We've had quite a few people come through to talk to us, and we're very interested in talking to as many more as we can," Tompkins says.
A recent report commissioned by the mining industry found that a decade-long bust in metal prices led to a lost generation of miners. As the old-timers retire, their ranks will need to be filled by young workers. Brandon Farmin, 19, is one of those kids.
"Every day in school, when I'd be sitting in class, sitting at a desk, listening to some teacher ramble on about something I wouldn't listen to, my big thing was that I could be making money right now," Farmin says.
Farmin graduated from high school last year and went straight to work in the mine. Now, he has cuts on his arms and a few blackened fingernails. He knows it's dangerous. "Nothing gives down there," he says. "The only thing that's going to give is your body."
Farmin made a deal with his grandmother: After a few years in the mine, he'll go to college. But giving up this job will be hard. Farmin just bought a new snowmobile, and he says when his high school friends come home from college, they're broke.
"Askin' mom and dad for money and stuff — that sucks. I'd hate that," Farmin says. "And then, like, a lot of them keep asking me how much I make. They'll be telling me how much they're going to be making, and I'm like, yeah, you're going to have a ways to go to catch up to me."
Of course, that will depend on his body holding up and the price of silver staying high.