Mind the gap

The mining industry job market is currently a mixed and somewhat puzzling picture. The energy sector is hiring, while other sectors are struggling and suffering redundancies. However, one thing is clear: the highly mechanized mines of tomorrow will require more highly skilled workers than in the past.

Mining natural resources is a massive 7 trillion US dollar industry employing millions of people. But it is not business as usual anymore. Around the world the mining industry is seeing increased attention to sustainable alternatives, a recent slowdown in mineral demand from China and more government regulation than ever before.

Preparing for the future

Sandvik is making a significant investment in its apprenticeship programme, but it is also looking at developing more rigorous mentoring relationships between senior employees and new workers as well as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes.

“The understanding should be that if we can make mechanized mining successful and help the mining industry to move away from conventional mining, making the mine a safer and better place to work, then Sandvik will be successful,” says Sunet Marx, global talent and performance manager at Sandvik Mining in South Africa. “This of course is a great challenge, and therefore we need young, brilliant minds to understand this and help us change the mining culture.

“Addressing this generational and talent gap is of utmost importance to Sandvik and the mining industry at large,” Marx says. “The apprenticeship programme makes a big difference, and our customers also join us in this programme. In many instances we make this part of our CSR action where we train apprentices for the mining industry at large and not just for us. In South Africa this is a huge investment which helps create jobs in a country where we have a 25 percent unemployment rate.”

However, the industry is rising to meet these challenges. The responses involve more mechanization, virtualization and modern technologies to achieve better “lean and mean” processes for producing more and wasting less. These new “smart” mining techniques require fewer employees overall, but a much higher proportion of highly skilled mine workers.

“We have seen more mining companies put in place management training programmes than ever before,” says Professor Greg Adel, head of the Mining and Minerals Engineering department at Virginia Tech in the United States. “As the older-generation mining professionals are retiring, they need to get a new generation of talented young engineers up to speed quickly. We also see our graduates move up the ladder faster than in the past, because their skills are very much in demand.”

As a result of the rapid mechanization of mining, the industry is facing a major skills gap over the coming years. In Canada, for example, fewer mining workers have a university level education (11 percent) than the average for the Canadian labour force (22 percent). However, tomorrow’s miners will be more educated than their peers in other industries. They need to be engineers from top schools with degrees in geology, thermodynamics, electrical circuits, hydraulics and other concentrations. This forces the mining industry to totally rethink its recruiting practices.

While administrative and corporate services roles are often located in urban areas, some mining projects require people to relocate to remote mining communities and may require extensive travel or fly-in/fly-out working arrangements,” says Ryan Montpellier, executive director of the Canadian Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR). “Mining companies need to provide competitive compensation packages as well as other benefits such as learning and development opportunities, mentorship and interesting and challenging work if they are going to be successful at attracting, recruiting and retaining these key people.”

Mining companies and equipment manufacturers need to get a unified message across to a new generation of talented recruits that modern mining is a great career choice, with safe working conditions and steady, high pay for the foreseeable future. But, perhaps even more importantly, they need to make it known that the job entails cutting-edge work in areas not traditionally associated with mining, such as communications and innovation.

“Many of our students are attracted to the chance to work solving real problems in the world such as minimizing environmental impact,” Adel says. “We work very closely with the industry on developing courses, internships and good scholarship support, but perhaps the biggest change over the last 10 years has been our increased attention to developing the communication skills of our students. Communication is key to the success of any modern mining company.”

Adds Montpellier: “In a competitive global economy, innovation is essential to the success of producers of goods and services. The mining and exploration industry is no exception. Mining and exploration organizations will need to increase their focus on recruitment, retention and succession planning.”