Mind the skills gap…

The mining industry relies on a skilled workforce, but the adequate supply of suitable employees is a growing problem, as Kathryn Hopkins discovers

While resource nationalism is often cited as the main problem facing the global mining industry, no one can deny that the skills shortage is a looming threat that could wreak havoc on this part of the world’s economy.

An ageing workforce and a lack of new blood flowing into the sector has meant that Australia’s resources industry needs an extra 170,000 workers in the next five years, while its Canadian counterpart will face a shortfall of around 140,000 in a decade.

This inescapable issue has also started to spread to other parts of the globe and in the last year alone, projects in Indonesia, Mongolia, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Mozambique have all been hampered because firms simply can’t find the workers.

A recent report by Ernst & Young warns that, if viable solutions aren’t found in the next few years, mining companies will continue to fight over the same global pool of talent, while production risks being hit and projects delayed. A smaller pond to choose from will also inevitably increase labour costs, a trend which has been picking up pace recently.

Firms should offer university students a financial incentive to work for them upon graduation

Dr Andrew Wetherelt, of the Camborne School of Mines at Exeter University, believes that companies need to play a role in helping to reverse the “stark decline” in the number of institutions producing graduates who embark on a career in mining. In particular, he suggests that firms offer university students a financial incentive to work for them upon graduation.

“Education has become a luxury now and it’s costing a lot of money. The major mining houses could take it upon themselves to provide a golden hello to take some of that burden away,” he says, adding that so far it is mostly the smaller firms that have showed this initiative.Another step that mining companies need to be taking to tackle this problem, according to experts, is to hire more indigenous workers, who represent a large labour source close to mining operations.

Some countries, such as Canada, are even starting to introduce incentive programmes for these communities to gain the appropriate skills to enter mining-related employment.

“This benefits not only the indigenous communities, but also contributes to the companies’ social licence to operate,” say analysts at Ernst & Young.

Another massively underutilised source is female workers. In Australia, women represent only 18 per cent of the workforce in mining, as opposed to 45 per cent of the total workforce, and a recent survey by PwC found that 80 per cent of senior industry executives in the country do not believe the sector is doing enough to attract female employees.

Companies are also starting to hire workers from other sectors, such as oil and gas, and manufacturing, while others are encouraging retired workers to re-enter the workforce and pass on their knowledge to new recruits.

Matt Guthridge, a partner at PwC, believes that, while progress has been made when individual companies decide to challenge traditional attitudes related to the skills shortage, more can be achieved by bringing together governments, universities and industry leaders to solve complex, sector-wide issues.

“It is going to require some fundamental changes being made not just by the industry, but by the community, academia and government,” says Mr Guthridge.