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I’m an underground miner making as much as $160,000 a year without a college degree. The job saved my life.

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cory rockwell an underground minerCory Rockwell is an underground copper miner in rural Nevada. This is what his job is like.

Courtesy of Cory Rockwell

  • Cory Rockwell is an underground miner at copper mine Nevada Copper in the town of Yerington. 
  • He works 12 hour shifts for seven days every other week under tough conditions and makes six-figures.
  • Here is what his job is like, based on a conversation with Insider’s Aaron Mok. 

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Cory Rockwell, a 38-year-old underground miner at Nevada Copper, a copper mine based in Yerington, Nevada. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I knew I didn’t want to work in the Hollywood entertainment industry.

Now, I’m an underground miner — and the job saved my life. 

During my 20s, I was lost and had no idea what I wanted to do. At the time, I had no education, no skills, no girlfriend, and no kid. I knew if I didn’t get out of LA now I’d be stuck here forever. So I fit everything I owned in my truck and started driving on the 5 North until I ended up in Reno, Nevada, with no plans. 

I had applied to supermarket jobs when a friend told me to try this place called Geotemps, a temp agency for mining jobs. I had no idea there were mines in Nevada, but I was interested, so I gave it a shot.

The agency gave me a job at a lithium mine in the small town of Orovada. It was only supposed to last six months, but because there was exploratory drilling happening, I ended up staying for a year. 

When the job ended, I realized that I liked it, so I went back to Geotemps and got a job working at a surface mine in the town of Fallon. Three years later, I moved to a different surface mine, but I really wanted to work underground, so I was applying to underground mines on the side.

Years later, I am now a powders guy at underground copper mine Nevada Copper.

I work seven, 12-hour shifts every other week. It’s exhausting. 

At Nevada Copper, I’m responsible for dropping explosives into the holes drilled into the ground.

At the end of my shift, I make sure nobody is still underground before I detonate the explosives, leaving behind a big pile of dirt with copper ore. The next day, I go down the mine — which reeks of earth and diesel fuel — and test for toxic gases to make sure it’s safe. After that, a colleague loads the dirt into a haul truck where it’s dumped into a system that extracts the copper from the debris.

Then, the cycle repeats. 

Underground mining is nothing like an office job.

 

Typically, I work seven days every other week in 12-hour shifts. I wake up at 4 a.m., take the 4:45 a.m. bus ride for an hour to the mine with no phone service, then spend another half an hour to change and attend our daily meeting. By 6 a.m., I take a caged elevator down a mine shaft a mile below ground where there is limited access to fresh air, then emerge from the darkness around 6 p.m. when my shift ends.

By the time I get home, I’m so mentally, physically, and emotionally worn out that I can easily sleep for 20 hours. 

Working underground can be uncomfortable and potentially dangerous

Not only is the job exhausting, the conditions underground are rough.

The deeper you go, the hotter it gets. There is one part of the mine where I always get soaked with sweat — my socks and boots drenched — because there’s boiling water coming out of the walls. 

Mining can also be dangerous. Fire is the biggest threat underground, and in the case of an emergency, there are refuge chambers with enough air, food, and water for 12 people over four days. 

While emergencies aren’t frequent, they do happen. There was one time I was training a newbie how to drive a truck, but when we got a mayday call, I was responsible for him. Luckily, I am familiar with the safety protocols through OSHA trainings, so I was able to get him to the closest refuge chamber. Still, it was scary.

The job is tough, but I made friends and get paid well 

Despite these conditions, I love my job. In fact, I strive to be the dirtiest person in the mine.

My favorite part is the sense of camaraderie with the other workers. You get to know who’s married, who’s divorced, the their kids’ names, and get to hang out with them outside of work.

We even have fun. One of the guys might sneak in a Ninja Turtle or a three-foot tall Jack Skellington toy and hide it somewhere in the mine for others to find, which could take years. 

The pay is good, too. The most I’ve made in a year is $160,000, though the annual salary depends on variety of factors. At Nevada Copper, I make $37 an hour and get an hourly bonus ranging from $0 to $30 at the beginning or end of every month, based on performance measures like production goals and injury prevention.

Last month our bonus was an extra $6 per hour, though there’s been months in the past where I made an extra $27 an hour. 

Mining is a job that anybody can do, regardless of your background

I want more people to know that a job like this exists, which is why I started a TikTok documenting my work days. It now has over 131,000 followers. 

Through my videos, I also want to break the stereotype that miners are all conservative, which from my experience is not true. Sure, many are right-leaning in my experience, but I’ve met miners across a range of political beliefs, as well as ethnicities, sexualities, religions, and gender identities — and we all get along. 

I’ve now been mining for 12 years and hope that others consider it as a career option.  It’s overwhelming at first, and requires some sacrifices.

But if I can do it, anybody can. 

Read the original article on Business Insider
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