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Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Hi all,

I did a civil/geotech degree at university and just got my first post uni job as a graduate tailings engineer.
I would have preferred a more general geotech role. Tailings is only slopes, so I will never learn other basic parts of geotech engineering such as designing retaining walls, piles, land reclamations etc., all of which I find very interesting.

But my main concern is working in such a specialist field. Geotech is already pretty specialised, but tailings even more so. I am a bit worried if I ever lose my job it will be hard to find another one with such a specific skill set. I think this could be a real possibility as our work is completely reliant on the mining industry, which will inevitably have booms and busts.

The only perk I see about tailings is that it seems to be 80% city/office based, 20% site work. I am very keen to do site work at the moment, but I feel after 5 or 10 years when I have a family I would want to be mainly in the office. I do not know if this is a possibility with a normal geotech role as they seem to be more heavily involved in site investigations and always out of the office.

Do you have any advice, regarding the above points? Would it be better to move into a geotech role or stay in tailings, taking a long term view.
Please excuse and correct any misunderstanding I have of the geotech industry if you spot them in my post above. I am still quite new to this.

Thank you!

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

I'd not be in a rush to move just yet. Sometimes jumping from job to job maybe looked upon as not good. Remember the first 5 years or so usually involves what I call grunt work, not real engineering. That gives you some experience that may be used later, but usually is not taught at college. I'd go to work and do the best you can, but keep your eyes open for other jobs, by subscribing to technical magazines and joining the larger engineer society as a beginner. In the USA that is ASCE, but sometimes it is possible to joint ASCE even if in another country. In the USA Engineering News Record is a great one to follow the fields related to civil engineering.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Thanks oldestguy. That is a fair point about the first years being grunt work. Cheers, I am indeed subscribed to our technical magazines and attend the geomechanics society's events.

I am just wondering how I would go about moving over to a general geotechnical role later. E.g. the job ads I see for even early lever engineers all ask for experience designing piles, foundations, retaining walls etc, not just slopes. The other issue is, where I live - most graduate jobs (i.e. jobs for people who just finished uni) only allow you to apply if you have graduated within the last 2 years. So I am a bit worried I won't be able to move into a generalist geotech role down the track. Or if I was able to move over, would have to start from year 1 pay again.

Could you comment on this? Do you know many people who have gone from tailings engineering into regular geotech engineering?

Thank you for the advice. Much appreciated.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Pay level in finding the right road to move into should not be a factor now. 10 or more years down the road it won't still be noticed. With your contacts you will meet at meetings, ask the older engineers about openings they may know of. As to office or field work, that will take care of itself as time goes on. As to tailings "engineering" I am not in an area of mining, but for highway design and construction or large scale site developments the same principles apply. Your current work is not work that is irrelevant to the experience that is useful later. As time goes on we have to be able to re-use waste materials that might now be a disposal problem of sorts. Hey, I just did a Google search for Engineering tailings. What a great number of posts there. I'll be the environmental departments at your country , if not now, but some day will really need engineers that know the score there.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

I see. Thank you for the info. That is really good to hear.

FYI - sorry, by tailings engineering I meant tailings dams engineering, not other sorts of tailings disposal without dams.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

It might be helpful to describe where you are located as there big differences between US markets and jobs and other locations in the world.

In the US and in my experience, an engineer can get bogged down in a narrow field which can make it hard to move to other parts of geotechnical engineering. This a function of how long one works in a specialized segment and where one's compensation ends up. For example, young geotechnical engineers can get involved in the US energy field (oil, coal,etc) which is quite specialized and cyclical and get paid a pretty fair wage quite rapidly. That market then slows down and there are a number of these engineers looking for work at a very high wage scale. This experience, past the first couple of years, means little to those working in the commercial or transportation sectors so companies are not willing to pay for that experience thus a major pay cut may be necessary to change fields.

"Tailings" is usually mining related and there are engineers who specialize in that segment for the companies and some geotechnical consulting companies. In my opinion, there is little experience gained in that field that is used in day-to-day geotechnical engineering unless you live in an area prone to landslides and slope stability evaluations. Most geotechnical engineering relates to site investigations, foundation schemes, remediation of poor soils and fills, roads, retaining structures, etc. Lots of borings, field work, lab testing, reports, client interaction, etc. is the common work with the "grunt work" being the domain of the less experienced engineers. Slope stability is a small subset of this work and only occurs on certain projects.

Good luck, after a couple of years you will have to see where you are going and what you like to do and consider a move. If you do tailings for 5-10 years, it may be difficult to changes jobs at the pay you become accustomed to. If you live or want to live in a mining area though, they may be the best jobs around.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Thanks for the reply Doctormo.

I am located in Australia.

That's one thing I am worried about, having all our tailings dam work 100% tied into the mining sector.

Beyond the financial/job security side, I also really want to learn how to do those other things you mentioned (site investigations, foundations, remediation, roads, retaining walls) and not only work on dams.

Thanks again Doctormo, I was already leaning towards trying changing over sooner rather than later, but your post has convinced me.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

What would be the day to day tasks of a tailings engineer? I would have no idea. But if it's slope stability issues and you are doing slope stability analysis (getting your head around when to use drained /undrained analysis ect) or looking at remediation of slope stability issues (which could maybe include retaining wall analysis , inground palisade wall analysis etc) that is all very useful stuff. The basics of soil mechanics apply across the board!

I would assume that there would be site investigation and lab testing requirements for tailingns/dan engineering? Again, understanding different testing is good stuff . I am still learning all this myself!!

And don't all you assies travel anyways, wiring in different countries is very valuable too!

Good luck

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

  • Before nuclear became completely bad, I worked in uranium prospecting.
  • During the '80s oil embargo (and before the pipeline) I worked on hydro projects in Alaska.
  • When the Alaska pipeline opened, I worked on the North Slope doing municipal development.
  • During the implementation of Subtitle D landfill regulations, I worked on landfill permits.
  • With all the leaking underground storage tanks, I worked on groundwater hydrology and contamination.
  • When wetlands became jurisdictional, I worked on creating new wetland banks.
  • When streams became a subset of wetlands, I worked on creating stream banks.
  • When nutrients in the water were too great, I worked on nutrient offset credits.
  • When the recession hit (late 2000), I bailed on consulting and went into the transportation sector.
A few years of cultured experience will not brand you! Having an ability to dig deeply into a subject is a wonderful opportunity.

Good luck in your career.


ípapß gordo ainÆt no madre flaca!

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Hi EirChCh,

Day to day tasks are mainly slope stability analysis for tailings dam raises, as well as monitoring groundwater level data given to us by the technicians on site to keep sure the tailings dam is in working order.

We don't really do the site investigations. The geotech team at our company does (or another geotech consultant does) and we get given the data. Similarly for the lab testing.

Haha yes, a lot of Aussies seem to work in the UK for a year or two (something to do with these 2 year working Visa agreements I think).

Hi fattdad,

Wow! That is quite the diverse experience you have. How did you manage to switch around/move from field to field? Was it like starting your career all over again (especially from say hydro projects to transportation).

That is true, it would be good to get my understanding of slopes down pat.

Thank you both for your replies and advice.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Dear Microcline,

Changing paths is not too difficult. After all, in geotechnical engineering it's all about first principals. The only reason I got into any version of environmental services is because to me it remained geotechnical engineering. You needed to establish the boundary conditions (i.e., where are the strata?), you need to establish the governing properties o the soil (e.g., permeability) and you needed to solve a problem. For instance, the design of a landfill liner requires some concept of interface shear and the evaluation of the infinite slope stability. Do landfills settle and cause stress concentrations? Sure, they do! We are just in a better position to evaluate such behavior. To dismiss an opportunity to noodle through these issues limits your career path.

The design of tailings dams sounds interesting. Meeting folks in that circle also exposes you to their concerns, their perspective on what's important and the like.

It'll all make sense in 10 years!


ípapß gordo ainÆt no madre flaca!

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Hi fattdad,

Thank you for the response. That is very reassuring. I guess I should not be in such a rush to move after all.

This tailings role is quite the opportunity too. By this I mean, if I was seeking out a beginner's tailings role I think I would have found it hard to find (compared to a general geotech role); I just fell into it by luck.

Haha I bet it will!


RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer


Everyone's experience is different as fattdad has illustrated. AUS is a different situation than the US so our experience may or may not relate well to your situation.

I do know from hiring a number of engineers over the years that experience is a funny thing to an employer. It is ideal to find a person that has the exact experience you desire in a position but that person rarely applies thus the hiring process is always a compromise. There is always budget pressure so it is hard to pay a lot of money for experience if the experience does not relate well to the position.

fattdad said "It'll make sense in 10 years". I would add "or it will not". I have over 40 years in (like fattdad) and it still does not make perfect sense and I always wonder if I could have some better choices along the way. However, I made some money in ways I never thought I would over that time so it turned out ok. Better to be lucky than smart as they say.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Hi Doctormo,

Thank you for the reply.

That goes to the core of what I am worried about. E.g. I saw a recent advert for a 1-2 year experience geotechnical engineer. However, the advert said must have experience designing piles, footings, slopes, pavements, retaining. Unfortunately, being in a tailings dam engineering role would only net me experience in slopes.

That is my main concern with stating in tailings dam engineering too long.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

I would take someone with dam engineering experience over a traditionally 2 year experienced consultant to work for me doing traditional type work. Dam engineering requires very strong fundamental knowledge of geotechnical principals. If you can design a dam, you can certainly design a pile or footing with minimal training.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

"E.g. I saw a recent advert for a 1-2 year experience geotechnical engineer. However, the advert said must have experience designing piles, footings, slopes, pavements, retaining."

We place the same type of ads and guess what, no people with that experience apply. It is pretty hard to have 1-2 years of experience in geotechnical engineering and not to have spent a lot of it doing field and grunt work. The more experience engineers (registered engineers vs. engineers-in-training) do most of the "design" work and there are always a few more senior engineers who specialize in deep foundations, soft soils, slope stability, etc, and keep most of that work to themselves (my experience, not necessarily all companies).

The HR concept is to describe the perfect candidate and hope that engineers will apply that have some interest or experience in the items listed. The minimum 1-2 years of experience is intended to discourage recent graduates from applying (does not work) and the items listed are to frame the type of work being done. However, I just hired an engineer recently out of school for a similarly advertised position since there were no "qualified" applicants per the advertisement after four months and the few that were close, were way above the pay scale for the position or from a very specialized industry segment that did not mean much to our work.

Once you get some experience, you can apply for those positions and hope for the best with a good cover letter explaining interest and relevant experience. It is really a supply and demand function in the hiring process. The US economy is doing ok so it is harder to find good qualified candidates for positions. There also seems to be some reluctance since the last recession for US engineers to change jobs as often as they may have done before the recession when the economy was silly good.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Hi Doctormo,

Oh wow. I did not realise that. I took the job ad literally and thought I would be ineligible for that particular role.

Thank you for the insight. I will definitely apply more liberally in the future, even if I don't meet all of the requirements the advert lists.

If you or any one else could possible comment on one more thing: Do you know anything about specialist geotechnical consultancies like Golder Associates (not where I work)? Do you start off there as a general geotech and then later specialise in say tailings, roads or tunnels for example? I am curious about the career path at a specialist geotechnical firm: i.e. I assume they would have teams dedicated to the different types of geotech structures right? So in the end would I just end up in a role like tailings dams anyway? I ask this because if I was only going to do e.g. piles or dams in the future, tailings dams isn't so bad. I more just want to know how to do the other types of structures first.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Hard to comment on specialty firms in the US. Might be easier in AUS or NZ than here. It seems that the legendary US geotechnical firms have been acquired by other companies and many of the key people have left to form other companies and so on. At the regional level, many of those firms have been acquired as well and many local offshoot companies have sprung up. It is pretty confusing in my opinion so I would tend to look for people I know who specialize in areas vs. any particular firm.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

That seems to be the same here. One of our major 2 specialist geotechnical firms, Coffey, recently became aquired by Tetra Tech. Most people seem to have left or been shown the door for whatever reason.

Thank you for all the help and suggestions above. I ended up speaking to my manager and he said after 2 years in Tailings I could do a 1-2 year rotation into the geotechnical team (I didn't ask for more, but hopefully if I like it I can transition over permanently, and if not come back to tailings)! Very happy.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

In my area, there are a couple of firms whose business is almost 100% tied to multi-year design and construction projects for tailings ponds in various types of mining including oil sands and arctic work. For whatever reason these firms are basically the god/legendary level firms - perhaps because the tailings work is the hardest, or perhaps because the engineers involved wanted the stability of multi year projects and got tired of the normal developer/government clients.

I've worked for a few. The stability is good, relatively speaking, and there are many good people at those firms that you can learn alot from. I suggest you work hard, ask questions, learn as much as you can. Try to get some field experience. Odds are you will end up either working your way up, or you will leave voluntarily or otherwise. The firms chasing huge tailings pond design project also tend to be pretty ruthless when times turn bad. Last firm I was at had to lay off close to ~90% of the staff involved in tailings projects when things slowed down for them.

Also, is it a 'tailings firm' or a 'we work for major mining clients' firm? If it's the later they will get big foundations projects from time to time to. That can be a good diversification in experience.

I'd say you stick around for a few years at least and then look for something else. Don't underestimate the power of a desperate employer. You may - nay, will- eventually find a firm that needs a body with any vaguely relevant geotechnical experience. Once you get the opportunity though, you have to work yourself to the bone to keep yourself on.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

I guess I was very lucky when I left uni . . . moved to Canada and worked for two geotechnical firms (Golder and Geocon which was part of Lavalin). Have been with Lavalin/SNC-Lavalin every since (38 some odd years now). I was involved with a great variety of projects - tailings work, plant site investigations for steel mills, LIN-LOX tanks, oil storage tanks, excavations, piling, and the like - and oh, did I say, I spent 3 to 4 years or more on drill rigs - ranging from Junior 24 diamond rigs to CME 75 auger rigs - truck and bombadier mounted. Gained a lot of experience in so many types of projects - then in 1995, moved on to site construction for roads/highways in Asia - which of course had their geotechnical problems (loess in China, landslides in residual soils in Laos, very soft sediments holding up 11 m high retaining walls) - then onto hydro-electric projects - dealing with concrete, lab and construction overview of earth and concrete dams.

From the "tailings" point of view - you will learn quite a bit about slopes, slope stability, seepage through earth dykes, effluent treatment, installation of instrumentation. But most tailings facilities also have mine plants and roads - which you should be able to get involved with too. Also underground mining and open pit - from whence the tailings derive . . . Today, in Singapore and other SE Asia countries, they are into huge land reclamation projects using "mud" for fill - then the need to improve the "mud" for strength and compressibility issues - somewhat similar to tailings and tailing slimes, eh?

Utilize your opportunities within the assignment to learn and use your experience in other areas - and if you are thinking that you are being buttonholed, then go for something else.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

I had some general geotechical experience and some dam engineering experience before moving to Canada. I found it really hard to convince recruiters/HRs to refer me to general geotech jobs when I moved to Canada. The reason was that there are limited number of dam engineers available and they were happy to find me! and then a long cycle of referring me to extremely remote arctic areas started. You should consider your place of living when you choose a career path. But in terms of knowledge, I believe you will learn a lot of things in any large size project, which could be used in other areas later.
Good luck

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer


I've heard similar stories - I know one engineer who came to Canada and provided a reference for his old manager in England, and when they contacted his old manager for the reference they spent the entire call giving a sales pitch to get the manager to come over. I think they were successful. This was back in 2010 when things were going absolutely gangbusters in western canada.

RE: Early career advice: Tailings Engineer vs Geotechnical Engineer

Thanks for sharing this interesting story, I think the same is happening these days with many infrastructure projects around. I found recruiters from UK looking for engineers to be employed in Canada. One reason is that they can transfer their chartered engineering license easily to Canada!

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