I’ve noticed that when I talk to people about recruitment and bridging the skills gap in mining, whenever I ask how we can increase awareness about careers in this field and change the way people think about the industry, they always point to young people.
The answer is always to better educate young people and offer them opportunities to learn and interact with mining at some level.
Because they are the future. Not just of this industry but of society, and their perception of what we do, of the way we mine and the opportunities that mining presents will determine our ability to operate going forward in one form or another.
There are some excellent organisations working on this, but we need greater, more coordinated efforts across the board.
Setting a good example
In 2004, Nicole Tardif joined the Sudbury Mining Week committee in Ontario, Canada, to help promote careers in geoscience and mining within her local community. 16 years on, she now co-chairs the organisation, renamed Modern Mining & Technology Sudbury (MMTS), in addition to her career as programme coordinator at Laurentian University’s Goodman School of Mines.
Her co-chair, Shannon Katary, director of marketing and communications at Maestro Digital Mine, has been a contact of mine for years and, when I asked the duo to talk to me about mining education, both in and outside of the classroom, they were more than happy.
“When I joined Laurentian as staff, I was teaching the first year geology labs and I noticed that by engaging with the students and showing them neat things about geology, I was influencing people from different majors to switch to geology, because they liked it,” Tardif told me.
“I started promoting geology in local high schools and leading field trips around the city. We’re lucky here in Sudbury, we have a lot of resources that we can tap into to help promote the mining industry and careers within it.
“In 2012, I joined the Goodman School of Mines at Laurentian because I wanted to learn more about other areas of the mining industry.
“At the time I was focusing on geology with a little bit of engineering, but there are a lot of other areas in mining that need people in different roles that we don’t talk about. For example: there’s health and safety, business, indigenous peoples, environmental sciences and intercultural competencies…
“The Goodman School of Mines works to open up conversations around that between different departments at the university and within the local community.”
Katary had a similar story. “Nicole and I started in mining around the same time,” she said. “I grew up in Sudbury but had never had a direct connection to the mining industry, until I started working for the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) and learned just how innovative and significant the mining industry was in the community and around the world. It was a story worth sharing.
“I looked to mining role models and Nicole was one of the first people that I got a chance to connect with. She suggested that joining MMTS would be an exciting opportunity to learn about how integrated mining was in our community. She was right and that’s why all these years later, I am a strong advocate of mining and all STEM programmes.
“MMTS was a really dynamic organisation. There were people from the educational side at the high school, university, and college levels; mining companies; mining service and supply companies; the City of Greater Sudbury and Ontario Government representatives; and mining associations all working together to promote careers in mining and bring greater awareness about the mining industry to the community.
“Over the years we started to refine our message and our target audience, and now we focus on inspiring young students – grade seven to high school, university and college levels. We help to steer the curriculum by interacting with teachers, we also offer field trips, learning events, online resources…
“In the past, mining was seen as something to steer people away from without recognising that, if you don’t understand what’s underneath your feet, then how can you appreciate the world around you?
“Every interactive activity, whether it’s a game, a mine tour, or teacher training… they are all meant to be educational, without looking like homework.
“It has worked brilliantly because of the volunteers and has been ideal for networking in the community and in the global mining industry. We wanted to expand on that success, so we took the programme from being one week of activities to one that spans the whole year.
“We promote our activities, and cross promote other organisations who also aim to educate the importance of the industry. It is a dynamic community of inspiring volunteers.”
Why are ongoing initiatives likes this so important to the future of the mining industry? I asked.
Personally, I feel like, we’ve got a problem on our hands when it comes to recruitment. Certainly in countries like the UK, we’re not often told about mining as a potential career path.
“You’re right,” said Tardif. “When you go to high school you study biology, chemistry, geography… you don’t really learn about mining and geology or engineering. There are some schools that have an earth and space science class here in Ontario, but that’s only if there’s a teacher available to teach it.
“Also, many people, particularly those who aren’t involved in mining, have a negative perception of the industry. They think that it’s unsafe, that it’s destructive to the environment, that its dirty hard work and that it’s a very volatile career path because of the economy.
“In the past and even now, parents who worked in mining, didn’t necessarily encourage their kids to pursue a career in the field because of that.
“We’re here to help change that perception by educating students who educate their parents as well, that mining is a lot safer than it used to be and that the innovative technology that’s being developed these days is not only ensuring safety, but measuring how safe mining activities and exploration activities can be.
“It’s also showing how responsible companies do pay attention to the environment and communities that are affected when they conduct exploration or mining activities.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are still some irresponsible companies out there. However, we need to model what is going well in the world so that it influences other companies and future students who will train in those careers, to continue those good practices.”
Which is why MMTS chooses to focus on modern mining practices and technologies and how they affect different career paths within the industry.
“It’s also important for people to realise that a career in mining doesn’t just pay well, it’s also a good industry to be in for the sustainability of our future,” Tardif added. “The reason people live in the environment that they do, and own cell phones and computers is because of the success of the mining industry.”
Katary agreed: “In mining, we don’t tend to talk about ourselves very much, the culture is to do your job, feed your family, take care of your colleagues and then do it again.
“Having groups like MMTS to breakthrough that is significant because, it doesn’t come across like advertising, it comes across as genuine understanding and knowledge transfer.
“When we share career profiles on the MMTS website, in lectures and on social media and we ask the people ‘if you’re a geologist, why did you choose this career and how did you get there?’ that gives people in the industry a voice to share their wisdom and passion for what they do.
“All careers in the mining industry matter. They are all connected and required to advance the industry whether you’re a miner, a mechanic, a marketing expert or in IT. The opportunities are endless.
“We’re bringing all the career opportunities to surface and it’s resonating well, because people can picture themselves in those roles making a difference.”
Breaking down barriers
Apart from the general lack of education and a need for better PR, I asked Katary and Tardif what other barriers they see in the recruitment and retention of young professionals?
Katary took the lead. “When I give mining talks, I always start with the Hollywood perception of mining and, in particular, the movie October Sky,” she said. “It’s about four boys in 1957 who are inspired to build a rocket, and their aim is to escape their coal mining home town for bigger dreams.
“It’s got dramatic music and you just feel so entrenched in this idea. But, what the film also does is portray mining as an old, dirty, unsafe and dream killing job! No wonder mining has a brutal reputation in the general community.”
“When you have such an influential medium such as big budget Hollywood movies that, within two hours, break down everything you’ve done to promote the mining industry and how it helps maintain our world economy, builds innovation and drive change for the better… It’s hard to fight images like that.”
There’s also, in many countries, a lack of federal support from governments.
Katary explained: “In Canada, for example, there is government funding and support, but much more is needed to truly launch us back to the level of mining excellence that is required to stay competitive on the world stage.
“Canada is a resource country and we need to take that expertise and accelerate the commercialisation of innovations to put us back in the driver’s seat.”
Together, we must continue to work to change the image of mining and there’s no hiding from the fact that it requires investment.
Australia, for example, has invested millions of dollars into its mining industry over several decades and that weight of investment is evident in the collaborative innovations, commercial product and services and talent generated.
“That kind of investment leads to a cultural shift in the industry, and when you invest in what your country excels at, then it can propel you,” said Katary with passion. “Even in the most resourceful countries like Canada, everyone has to do their part in promoting mining and educating people at the right level.”
Tardif pointed to diversity and inclusion as another sticking point.
“There are not enough workers in the mining industry, that’s the first problem,” she said. “We need to attract more recruits and then, as far as retaining them, the boom-bust cycle that we see in mining is a huge problem, as are things like racism, unconscious bias, inequalities… they are all still very real in this industry. They’re getting better, but we still have a way to go.”
So, how can we make mining careers more attractive for everybody? I asked.
“We need more visibility of the positive things in mining,” Tardif was clear. “It’s like plane crashes and flying, right? People fly thousands of times a day, and do people hear about the safe, successful flights that are going on around the world? No! They only hear about the tiny fraction that go wrong, and that makes people afraid of flying.
“It’s all about education and talking about the positive aspects of the industry, and not necessarily to people to already know about it.
“My dream is that the Canadian federal government starts putting up positive mining industry poster boards in downtown Toronto, and in subways and buses, and that there are commercials on TV telling people about the mining industry’s relationship with safety and the good news stories.
“That has to be done at a federal level and in big cities, where people don’t know anything about the mining industry.”
I explained how, when I was travelling through Heathrow airport in the UK earlier this year (and if you follow me on Twitter, you will already know this), I noticed a billboard advert from BHP.
It talked about electric vehicles and the growing need for copper to help meet the goals of the green economy, and how BHP is one of the companies helping to make that change happen.
Seeing that advert made me really happy.
Firstly because, in the UK, mining is not something we hear about often, even though the country is home to many mining and service companies. And, secondly, because I have been campaigning for mining companies to speak more to the general public to help change the image of the industry for so long.
“I think unfortunately, it’s always going to fall to the industry itself, to put that money upfront,” said Katary. “Which is why not-for-profit organisations are often the ones driving promotion with industry support. Once industry gets on board this creates confidence and then leads governments to add additional financial support.”
Evolving academic education
We also need to change curriculums to be more cross disciplinary; if you can take what you learn in math or science and apply it to a potential career path, then that subject becomes much more exciting.
“So many of us go to school, graduate and then don’t know what to do career wise. But wouldn’t it be great if that thought process was something you pieced together as you go?” said Katary. “You can see that in some of the young minds today because of our efforts and others, but it has to be embedded into the way we teach.”
So how do we do that? First, if you’re a teacher or lecturer, use local groups like MMTS to expand your own knowledge base. Ask for resources and real-life examples that you can use in the classroom to supplement your own educational prowess.
Tardif explained: “What the industry wants and needs from recruits these days is different to what they needed years ago, and the way that education is being taught today, is not currently meeting the industry’s needs. It’s starting to change though.
“Not that long ago, you would go to university or college, graduate as a mining engineer and go out to work in the industry. The company you worked for might teach you a few things here and there but, largely, you would still be an engineer.
“That’s not what the industry has expressed it needs today. What companies want are people who know a career, but also have a general understanding of the whole mining industry… of health and safety, of the business aspects, an understanding of the environmental impact, the way that their words affect colleagues and who appreciate diversity in the work place.
“It makes careers in mining much more interesting, and it’s more in line with the way that young workers – millennials and younger – are thinking.
“But the challenge from a university point of view, is that we still only have four years to teach that student their career and when you start bringing in all those other pieces that are needed by the industry, you’re diluting their main education.”
Know your audience
Katary pointed out that, to spread the word and educate effectively, it’s important to be in touch with your target audience too.
“If you’re going after a younger audience, then know how are they getting their information.” she said. “Sometimes traditional methods like magazines don’t make the same sense for someone in high school who uses Instagram or another form of social media as their communication outlet.
“I’ve realised that MMTS works because we’re in touch with teachers, with people in high schools and universities, and with industry movers and shakers whose careers are directly in touch with our target audience. It’s important to stay relevant and not just preach to the choir, but to everyone else as well.”
Tardif jumped in: “The beauty of MMTS is that it fulfils the role of education outside of university and colleges, because it encourages continuous communication between government, colleges, universities, service and supply companies, mining companies, students, parents…
“We communicate with each other about the good things that are happening in the industry, and that equips all of us with more knowledge to educate others who we’re trying to attract into mining careers.”
Do your bit to help
That’s the message I’d like you all to take away from this article: that continuous collaboration and communication are the most powerful tools we have in attracting and retaining people in mining careers.
Our message is stronger when it comes from multiple sources, at multiple levels, and we all have a role to play in educating others, however big or small.
That’s how we can best teach the world about the impact of modern mining.
Great article! My son is about to embark on a geology education and I would love to be able to point him toward initiatives that help him to see what career paths might exist!