For the global mining sector, discovering new ore bodies may not be the biggest concern – according to new studies, finding enough workers may be an even bigger issue.
Mining bodies and governments around the globe are raising a “red flag” over concerns that there will not be enough workers to keep up with the rapid growth of the sector. COVID restrictions impacting travel around the globe has been identified as one of the reasons why there has been a major drop-off in skilled mining specialists in leading, resource-driven countries. Coupled with the effects COVID-19 has had on the workforce, is a serious “boom” in mine developments across the globe – further shrinking the supply of skilled workers for key projects.
Australia’s labour crisis
In a cry for help, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia (CMEWA) this week published a report that found that the State is facing a serious labour shortfall, which it says will have a serious effect on Western Australia (WA) and the industry’s future.
The CMEWA’s report said WA’s mining and resources sector could need as many as 40,000 additional workers by mid-2023, according to new modelling exploring a deepening skills shortage that has now extended Australia-wide. The research, commissioned by the CMEWA, looks at the sector’s workforce requirements in the near-term and further out to 2025.
Key insights of the report confirm there is a significant shortage of workers now, with CMEWA chief executive, Paul Everingham, stating it made for telling reading.
“When we last released workforce modelling in August 2020, our sector had a positive outlook coming out of the worst of COVID-19 restrictions and we predicted then a need for an extra 8,000 operational workers in the following 18 months – but this new research shows the situation is far more challenging than that,” Mr Everingham said.
“There are many factors contributing to this worsening skills shortage which collectively equate to a perfect storm. From a WA mining and resources sector perspective, we have an unusual situation where shutdown work will remain unseasonably high in the short term to make up for lost time, and in parallel, operational and construction work is projected to grow strongly over the next two years on the back of strong commodity prices.
“Meanwhile, there is hot competition for skilled and experienced workers across Australia from a variety of industries, which include significant government-backed infrastructure and construction projects underway around the country.
“Unlike previous construction-led growth periods for our sector, where up to 1,000 people a week were moving to WA for work, there are now strong employment prospects in the eastern states for people if they choose to stay at home.
“And, of course, international skilled migration has all but halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there has been a very clear indication from government that Australia’s border won’t open up for at least another year.”
Mr Everingham said the magnitude of the potential skills shortage underscored the need for industry and government to work together to ensure the continued strong recovery of both the WA and Australian economies from the impacts of COVID-19.
“In our sector alone, there are A$140B of projects currently in the pipeline – opportunities that won’t be fully realized unless we can gain access to the right people with the right skills at the right time.
“As this report makes clear, we simply aren’t going to be able to address our workforce needs within the talent pool that is currently available in WA or, indeed, the country.”
A serious ‘boom’ in mine developments across the globe is further shrinking the supply of skilled workers for key projects
Critical mineral concerns
Similar concerns are being raised around the globe as COVID restrictions are lifted and Brown and Greenfield operations are being fast-tracked towards start-up.
Analysts have identified the potential effects worker shortages will have on “Critical Minerals” and this has been noted as being of particular concern to many governments. In mid-June, for example, the U.S.’s Biden-Harris Administration announced its key findings from reviews into “America’s Supply Chains”.
Amongst the four key areas of concern identified by those reviews were critical minerals and materials and large capacity batteries, such as those used for electric vehicles.
The Whitehouse noted that the supply chain reviews reinforced the need for the transformative investments proposed in the President’s American Jobs Plan.
In addition to the immediate actions taken in the supply chains of the critical products identified, the U.S. Administration also announced a series of actions to be taken across the Federal government to support workforce development and labour standards at home and abroad.
Supporting this workforce push, the US Department of Labor (DOL) is expected to announce later this month more than US$100M in grants to support state-led apprenticeship expansion efforts, as well as establish national Registered Apprenticeship Technical Assistance Centres of Excellence.
New skills needed
Meanwhile, multinational consulting firm Accenture recently noted that COVID-19 is fundamentally changing the mining workplace. It said that in mining, the pandemic has both accelerated industry digital agendas and necessitated long-term remote-working strategies that keep workers safe and support their wellbeing.
Accenture says a transformed mining workforce will require different skills, which are being dictated by key trends.
“For example, with specialized mechanical roles (i.e., machine operators) and repetitive tasks (i.e., data processing) most likely to become automated, workers with analytical skills will be in demand,” the company suggested.
“Artificial intelligence, machine learning and process-automation experts will be needed to oversee new ways of working.”
In addition, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report identifies leadership and social influence as a main focus of mining companies’ reskilling or upskilling programmes – with empathy being vital to mitigating the potential negative impact of remote working on mental health, and managers needing superior communication skills to manage isolated teams.
“And finally, with remote working fatigue hitting the workforce and leaving workers susceptible to mental health issues, managers must be vigilant in checking on workers and companies must provide ongoing support as ways of working evolve,” Accenture suggested.
Adapting to change
Going forward, Accenture says companies must create as many upskilling opportunities as possible. These should range from individual-focused, continuous training (via Massive Open Online Courses etc.), strategic, large-scale digital programmes, as well as mentoring and reverse-mentoring schemes. And finally, companies must work hard to fully reconnect with the individuals that make up their workforce.
According to Accenture, companies thrive when they address the full range of the workforce’s fundamental needs, leaving them Net Better Off.
The company suggested that specifically, it is imperative to ensure the financial, emotional, mental, and physical well-being of the workforce – as well as enhance their sense of belonging and inclusion, and their quest for finding purpose in their work.
Whether there is enough time and determination to overcome what is a critical issue that occurs whenever a “boom” resources period comes along is yet to be seen.