The Global Mining Industry and the New World of Work


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Over the past 10 years, the global mining industry has continued to build momentum and prepare itself for what appears to be a remarkable transformation. Executives are facing unprecedented pressure to find sustainable and creative methods to drive shareholder value, enhance productivity, and improve the safety of the workforce – all during a time of global political instability, low commodity prices, and a generation of new workers that are motivated by non-traditional incentives that the “older” generation seemingly does not fully understand. Bundled together, it is clear that a career in the mining industry is going to look very different than it does today. For those currently working in the mining industry or considering a prospective career in the mining industry, here are some things to think about.

First, in 2016 the Mining Industry Human Resources Council reported that the Canadian mining industry continues to become less labour intensive as new technologies, both in hardware and software, automate and streamline manual and inefficient processes. Complementing this insight, a 2017 industry report from Deloitte cited that nearly 70% of global mining companies are looking at remote operating and monitoring centers while another 30% of global mining companies are investing in robotics / automation technologies. These large-scale investments in robotics, automation, and ultimately the creation of “the digital mine” indicate that the industry is poised to experience a paradigm shift like no other. As an existing or prospective worker, I would be asking myself if I have the relevant skills and capabilities to be successful in this new digital and automated era.

Second, and very relevant to Canadian mining operations, is the forecasted labour shortage our industry is expected to face. The simple principles of supply / demand and the competition for unique talent is nothing new for mining executives, but what is different and not fully understood this time around can be summed up in one word: Millennials.

The millennial generation and their collective definition / desires of what they want in a career is something all industries, not just mining, are still trying to fully understand and manage. Here lies a generation that is not exclusively motivated by money, is seeking creative and impactful opportunities while on-the-job, and want more flexibility than any other generation in history. One could argue that this type of perspective “needs adjusting”, but I would argue this presents an exceptional competitive advantage opportunity for mining companies that “get it”.

For example, consider the technology deployed by Hard-Line, a global leader in tele-remote and autonomous vehicle systems for the mining industry. These systems have been adopted by mining companies around the world for the aforementioned reasons related to shareholder value and productivity / safety improvements. However, my field research, albeit limited, has bore witness to young workers seeing this technology and being surprised and inspired that opportunities to use these leading edge tools exist in the mining industry. Herein lies the competitive advantage opportunity. Mining companies that invest in technology will not only win the economic battle, but also they will win the battle for talent – especially in the Canadian marketplace. Through the eyes of a young worker, having a job where I can make enough money to take the money discussion “off the table”, improve mine safety and productivity, work with technology that embodies game controller fundamentals, and work in an urban setting close to a good coffee shop…yeah, I want to work for that company because they “get it”.

Lastly, we can’t neglect the existing workforce and the concerns that many have related to job security as this technology revolution continues to unfold. Governments and mining companies alike are touting and seeking programs and opportunities focused on upgrading skills of the existing workforce to ensure they have meaningful roles well into the future. But what does this mean?

One of my favourite examples of skills upgrading is currently happening in Kentucky, a region that has seen unprecedented layoffs in the dwindling coal industry.  Founded by a former miner, Bit Source, is a software coding start-up service company that engages and re-trains coals miners to be programmers. Yes – you are reading this correctly – coal miners being re-trained as software developers. Is it working? Well, last year Fortune magazine identified Bit Source as one of the “7 World-Changing Companies to Watch” so I would say yes, it’s working quite well. But why is this improbable venture so successful? Well according to Bit Source CEO / co-founder Rusty Justice, miners are “accustomed to deep focus, team play, and working with complex engineering technology. Coal miners are really technology workers who get dirty.”

I’m not sure this is the beginning of a trend that will see mining companies create software development studios, but I will say this, the world of work in the global mining is changing and it’s changing fast. Those that “get it” will be poised for continued success.