Mining’s lost generation

7 September 2011 (Last Updated September 7th, 2011 18:30)

A generation gap of skilled workers is forcing the mining industry to find new ways to lure talent. Elisabeth Fischer finds out how the sector is engaging with its future leaders to fill an unsustainable hole that threatens to slow productivity and profitability.

Mining’s lost generation

Ageing workforces, looming waves of retirement and inability to attract new talent to the industry have led to a scarcity of skilled people in mining.

Named as one of the top ten issues in the industry in 2011, the shortage of new professionals entering the sector plagues mining companies, universities with mining departments and equipment suppliers alike.

The picture is the same everywhere: many veterans are close to retirement, with not enough students or mid-career workers to replace them. When mining went through its bust in the 1990s, layoffs across the sector forced many professionals to take on other professions and they never came back, causing a gap widely called the lost generation. 

Now, with mining profitable again, the industry is missing a core constituency of mid-career professionals, creating unsustainable situations across the sector.

But, with demand for mining products skyrocketing in countries like China, India and other emerging nations, the industry will have to find new ways to lure talent back to the industry.

The boom and bust of mining

"Part of the problem is the industry's image problem, something mining has faced for more than 500 years."

Even as metal prices pump profits for global mining companies, the number of professionals like engineers, geologists, electricians and technicians who know how to operate mining equipment is small. 

Figures throughout the sector are cruel. In Canada for instance, where mining employs about 306,000 people and accounts for 3.5% of GDP, more than 60,000 people are expected to leave the industry by 2020.

According to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MIHRC) and based on conservative forecasts, the country will need around 100,000 new workers between now and 2020 to fill the shortage.

Elsewhere, in Western Australia, an area particularly important for gold mining, the state's Chamber of Minerals and Energy CEO Reg Howard-Smith declared in May 2011 that an extra 33,000 workers will be needed by the end of 2012 – a number nearly impossible to reach.

The shortage in skilled professionals not only sets back projects but also raises costs for companies as productivity is low and those who are employed within the industry demand ever higher wages. Especially for jobs at remote mines the salary offers have progressively gone up in recent years.

Also mining and earthmoving science departments at universities feel the pressure coming from the industry and are struggling to attract new students. Mining graduate numbers have been very low and departments around the world were forced to close as a result of the bust in the 1990s.

"We had a major dip in student applications in the late 1990s and early parts of 2000, it was a very low volume of students being produced," says University of Exeter senior lecturer and Camborne School of Mines programme director Andrew Wetherelt.

"Mineral prices were depressed and there was no real investment. It was almost deemed at some stages as an industry-wide problem but then it started to take off again in the mid-2000s."

The aftermath however can still be seen: "Basically, we are now the only mining department left in the UK directly recruiting into year one," he says.

Cooperation between academia and industry

Part of the problem is the industry's image problem, something mining has faced for more than 500 years. Even though the sector can offer 100% employability with the potential of very good graduate salaries, the perception of long working hours in a highly pressured environment with little reward still predominates.

This imbalance has forced businesses to seek new ways to attract graduates from mining academia and increasingly also from other fields.

In recent years, many companies have implemented training programmes, actively promoting employment in cooperating with universities and other earthmoving science departments worldwide.

"When we meet with customers around the world, one topic that always keeps coming up is people."

Companies such as Vale, Sandvik, Gold Fields and Rio Tinto have all either developed educational programmes or offer global internship and work experience opportunities.

But while it is relatively easy to inspire students with an interest in earthmoving sciences to enter the mining field, it is far more difficult to attract youngsters with no mining-related background or from other technological academia. "How students originally come to find us at CSM and apply for the mining degree is very difficult to track," explains Andrew Wetherelt.

"And I feel that the industry could still do more," he continues. "Particularly next year when the UK student fees rise to £9,000 per annum, companies could possibly set a precedent and sponsor a number of top students so as to cover their university fees. We have no idea what is going to happen in 2012 as far as student applications are concerned. The £9,000 could be a real problem for certain degree programmes."

Retaining experience in the mining industry

As large parts of the experienced workforce in the industry are close to retirement age, their knowledge and expertise has become even more valuable to the industry. When mining equipment giant Caterpillar completed its recent acquisition of North American supplier Bucyrus in July 2011, laying off employees was out of question for the management board.

"The knowledge that we have are the people out there that are serving the customers today and we want to retain this knowledge," said Caterpillar Global Mining mining products division vice president Luis de Leon at a press briefing in August 2011 in Milwaukee, US, outlining the company's strategy for years ahead. "There are no redundancies with the Cat Bucyrus merger as we really need all the people that we can get. It is a real struggle to get good talent."

"People are important. When we meet with customers such as Vale, Rio Tinto and any other companies around the world, one topic that always keeps coming up is people," he said.

"Getting good people to operate machinery, to repair machinery, to sell it and also to engineer it, is a really big challenge in this industry. It is a small industry despite investments of billions and billions of dollars but the search for talent, to use a more dramatic term, is really important."

According to the company's vice president of operations David Bozeman, keeping experienced people within a company not only benefits the business today but also tomorrow. Their knowledge and experience can be used as a valuable source of expertise for future generations and leaders.

"We have generational types of employees and there is a lot of deep expertise," Bozeman explained in Milwaukee. "We have to be able to get into the position to backfill some of this deep expertise even though they will be retiring at some point from our operations. We work very diligently on our successive plan to make sure that we're prepared for this gap that is ahead of us."

The mine of the future: no people, all autonomy?

"The lack of talent is one of the motivations why mining companies want automated vehicles."

If the trend of fewer educated mining workers continues, the worst-case scenario could be that there are fewer discoveries and less efficiency.

However, with autonomous programmes and equipment taking over bigger parts of extraction processes, equipment suppliers like Caterpillar work towards the trend of having fewer people on mines.

"The lack of talent is one of the motivations why mining companies want automated vehicles," said Caterpillar Global Mining group president of resource industries Steve Wunning in Milwaukee in August.

"Autonomy can help them to solve the human resource issue with finding operators that are willing to work in remote environments and improve the safety of everyone."

"What we're trying to do with our autonomy programme is not only be able to operate these vehicles without operators but also have technology that delivers higher productivity and where you don't have to worry about shift changes and those types of things," he said. "More autonomy, increased safety and increased productivity – those are the challenges we are trying to wrestle with."

A completely autonomous delivery of mining projects, however, will never be reality. But prospects such as 100% employability, far higher graduate salaries and the opportunity to work on mines worldwide, the industry should be able to turn the wheel around to attract leaders of tomorrow.