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Follow Your Dream

by A. Maureen Rouhi
April 8, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 14

I’m always looking for people with stories worth sharing. Last month at Pittcon, I met Kurt Headrick, the chief chemist at the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine of Vale. Working at the mining company allows Headrick to see more of his family than ever before and gives him time for other interests, such as serving as an American Chemical Society career consultant.

Headrick’s passion has taken him near the top of the world. Just outside the Arctic Circle, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland & Labrador, Voisey’s Bay is reachable only by air or sea. Summer nights never get totally dark, Headrick says, and winter days can have only six hours of light. The closest town is Nain, an Inuit community that is a 10-minute flight away. Employees live in a camp at the mine where Vale unearths nickel, copper, and cobalt. They work for two weeks straight then take two weeks off.

With this arrangement, families can be anywhere. Headrick’s family lives 746 miles south, in St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland & Labrador. But he knows of someone who lived in Cuba for years while working at another remote Arctic mine.

When Headrick was considering the job, he recalls, his wife’s reaction was, “I didn’t marry you to live away from you.” Weeks later, Headrick says, his wife concluded that she would see more of him with this job, because the two weeks off really are days off. However, it is difficult to be away when you have small kids, says Headrick, whose children were five and nine years old when he started this job in 2005. And because of the site’s remoteness, he says, you may not get home in time during emergencies.

Headrick’s staff runs analyses for ore grading and blending, metallurgical balance determination, environmental monitoring, process control, and quality control. The chemistry is standard, although getting a representative sample from 30,000 tons of mineral concentrate—“something they don’t teach in school,” Headrick says—is challenging.

What’s different, Headrick says, is living with coworkers from the lab and elsewhere in the site: men, women, contractors, company personnel, aboriginals, and nonaboriginals. Fortunately, Headrick says, “people who live in remote sites are good at getting along with others.”

Headrick has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, but he also studied geology and had always wanted to work in the mining industry. When he began job hunting, mining companies were not hiring. So he worked for the Canadian federal public service and then joined academia. It was during his stint as a teaching lab manager at the University of Alberta that he decided to quit so he could pursue his dream job full-time. It wasn’t easy; it took him a year.

“The first thing I did was to consult an ACS career consultant,” Headrick says. “I had to build a network, and that takes time and effort. Eventually, I got referred to the chief chemist for Vale in Sudbury, Ontario, who was retiring and looking for someone to replace him. ” From that referral, he learned of the job at Voisey’s Bay.

Shortly after landing his dream job, Headrick volunteered to be an ACS career consultant. “When you learn chemistry, they don’t teach you how to market yourself. You don’t learn about how to find a job,” he explains. “I learned a lot, and I would like to give back.” He does career consulting during his two weeks off. He is now helping ACS members in the U.S. and China.

His advice: Think of nontraditional ways to use your knowledge. Build your network. Be involved with ACS to make contacts and get new ideas. Do informational interviews; summarize your strengths, and ask people what places could use them. Use temporary staffing agencies to get a foot in the door. Be flexible; if you’re not willing to relocate, you’re significantly limiting your options.

That’s believable advice from someone who went to extremes to follow his dreams.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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