March 19, 2012 at 2:30 PM ET
By Alissa Figueroa
ELKO -- In almost every way Nevada is still reeling from the recession. It has the highest unemployment rate in the country at almost 13 percent, and one of the highest foreclosure rates. But in the northeast corner of the state, almost 500 miles from the Vegas strip, life is suddenly very good.
In Nevada's gold country the global boom that’s pushed gold prices to an all-time high – currently hovering around $1,700 per ounce -- brought an influx of jobs to mining towns like Elko, Nev., population 18,000.
Devin Judy can attest to that. The 22-year-old combat veteran landed a steady job driving one of the massive trucks that hauls thousands of pounds of earth at the Newmont Mining Corporation’s Gold Quarry mine, just 26 miles outside Elko.
Judy was unemployed for three months after returning from a deployment to Iraq with the Idaho National Guard.
“[I was] trying to find my place back in society, trying to provide for my family, provide a better lifestyle and trying to progress in life,” said Judy. “We were worried about all those things.”
There were few permanent, steady jobs back in Idaho. “No careers,” he said, sitting near his 22-foot-tall truck at the mine. “This is a career.”
Judy makes around $60,000 a year hauling dirt and rocks speckled with microscopic flecks of gold through the mine (there’s 130 tons of dirt for every ounce of gold the mine produced). That’s enough money to comfortably support his young family -- a wife and 18-month-old daughter who relocated with him from Idaho Falls two and a half months ago.
Judy is one of about 30 military veterans recruited last year to work at the Newmont mines that surround Elko. Newmont brought on about 600 employees in 2011, and is expecting to make another 600 hires this year.
“It's a nice place to be,” said Richard Martinez, a vice president of human resources for Newmont. “It makes for an exciting atmosphere, that’s for sure, compared to some of the other things going on in this country.”
Would-be miners face tough competition for jobs, housing
Leading a jobs boom is not without challenges. With the average salary for a metal mine worker in Nevada around $86,000, thousands are clamoring for these jobs -- some 34,000 people applied for the 600 positions that opened in Newmont’s Nevada mines last year. Finding the highly skilled workers needed for many mining positions has led recruiters to military bases across the country, where they can find veterans fresh from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who have extensive heavy machinery training.
Newmont is also recruiting workers from closing mine sites (as far away as Missouri and Tennessee), and has a partnership with six research universities to attract and train engineers and geologists.
But finding housing in Elko for the new arrivals has proven more difficult than finding qualified workers. The four RV parks in town are booked solid, as are most of the motels, originally built to house tourists visiting local casinos.
At Double-Dice RV Park, the largest in town, all but 13 of the park’s 143 spots are reserved for long-term guests, some staying as long as six months to a year while they work at the mine. Normally, said owner Dean Vavak, only 90 or so of the park’s spaces are booked for long-term stays.
“We get calls all the time,” said Vavak. “We have to turn people away, actually.” In fact, his park is running a wait-list for long-term tenants.
Mining companies invest in Elko
Elko Mayor Chris Johnson knows the housing shortage is something his government has to take on for Elko to grow sustainably. But getting financing from banks to build big developments has been a challenge, he said. This is still Nevada, after all, the epicenter of the nation’s housing crisis. And there’s always the possibility that gold prices could plummet, as they did in the early 2000s, when gold went down to $250 an ounce, and the mines shed workers.
“We're based on mining; it’s well over 50 percent of our economy,” said Johnson. “There's no question that if it plummets and the mines just couldn't make the ends meet that it's going to affect Elko.”
The mining companies, however, are willing to invest in Elko’s growth. Developer Pedro Ormaza was asked by another company working in the area, Barrick Gold Corporation, to build a 200-unit apartment complex on the outskirts of town to help alleviate the housing crunch. Barrick is funding the project.
“As soon as I get a building built it's occupied the next day, with people usually leaving a motel room,” said Ormaza. “[They’re] moving up from a motel room to an apartment, and hopefully in the future they can move into a house.”
That’s the future that Devin Judy, the veteran-turned-mine-worker, sees for himself and his family in Elko. Judy is renting a house a half-hour drive from the mine, after spending his first three weeks in town in a motel room with his wife and baby. But they just got a new puppy, and hope to buy their own home in the next six months.
“I feel fortunate. That's for sure,” said Judy. “I know a lot of Americans out there don't.”