Do you think that mining education today is well aligned with the industry’s needs? My impression is, probably not.
But it’s been a while since I undertook any formal academic training, so I asked John Steen, EY Distinguished Scholar in Global Mining Futures and director of the Bradshaw Research Initiative for Minerals and Mining (BRIMM) at the University of British Columbia (UBC), to share his experience and opinions with me.
“I think that represents the consensus, certainly from the industry perspective,” he concurred. “There’s a big crisis looming in the way we prepare students, and not only undergraduates; there’s a crisis in how we engage in lifetime learning for the industry. Universities are being called upon to deliver more after graduation and we’re just not in a position to answer that challenge.”
It’s a very real problem, one that many people feel strongly about. When I announced that I’d be covering education on The Intelligent Miner last month, I received a huge number of messages from followers who agreed there is an issue and it’s not being talked about enough.
“Mining is becoming more and more complex,” said Steen. “EY’s yearly Top 10 Risks report has cited things like social licence to operate, carbon footprints, retaining skilled employees and eco-political risks as the biggest threats to mining companies for several years now. We don’t actually teach that in mining schools, so we’re producing undergraduates who aren’t familiar with or able to understand the top risks in our industry.”
The fact is: the mining sector is evolving fast, and the current university system isn’t able to keep up with that rate and complexity of change.
“University departments are still very siloed, and that means that what they teach their students is siloed,” Steen explained.
“For instance, engineers and geologists are usually taught separately, and that probably costs the mining industry billions of dollars a year because the engineers don’t design for the orebody. There’s this perennial gap that we’ve been taking about for decades and it goes back to how we train students along disciplinary lines.
“There’s a couple of reasons for that approach, one is that the profile of senior managers across the industry is typically older, white men and that’s true for universities faculties as well.
“There are some outstanding exceptions, but if you look at the typical category of professor in a mining school around the world in OECD countries, it’s probably an older white man. And generally, they’re not invested in seeing a lot of change in the industry. They’re pretty happy with how they’ve been teaching for the last 40 years.
“Another is the time it takes to make changes inside of a university. For instance, when I came to UBC, I wanted to change the name of the course I was leading to better reflect the content.
“And the advice I was given was not to change the name, or to change a couple of sentences but be careful, because if you signal that there’s going to be significant change, approval has to go all the way up to the senate and you’ll be waiting years for the go ahead. That’s common in most universities.”
Many degree courses are subject to accreditation by industry bodies, and guess who those bodies tend to be run by…?
“The average profile there is retired, or semi-retired men in their 60s,” said Steen. “Some of them are very innovative, flexible thinking people, but a lot of them are anchored in the way things were 20/30 years ago. They’re experts in an industry that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Given that it’s a generational thing, do you think we’ll see big change over the next 10-20 years as people retire and more progressive executives and professionals come through the ranks? I asked.
“Yes, you can see that change happening now,” said Steen. “Some of the more progressive companies are seeking diverse people with different thinking styles, and different experiences for their leadership teams and that’s really important.
“People are retiring but, on the supply side, there’s just not enough talent coming through. Prospective students don’t want to study mining or be affiliated with a business they perceive to have a bad reputation.
“I’m seeing a real talent crunch coming. I actually think it’s the biggest threat to the industry over the next 5-10 years, if not sooner.”
I recently wrote a magazine feature on the recruitment and retention of tailings engineers in mining and one of the main points that was raised, and which Steen touched upon in this conversation, was the identity crisis that the industry is currently suffering from.
In order to attract more recruits, the sector needs to rethink its role in society, its mission statement, and get used to communicating that message very clearly to the outside world. Unless we can share that manifesto and demonstrate credible action towards it, it’s unlikely that others will want to join us.
Steen agreed. “I had a really good conversation with a Canadian mining association recently. Previously their assumption was that there’s an endless supply of graduates. I showed them how low the numbers are and said: ‘if you want to grow the industry in this province and meet demand for all this copper and nickel, then something needs to change’. And they were shocked. They had no idea.”
Today, the dominant narrative from people who were coming up through the industry in the 80s and 90s is that mining jobs are well paid. But that’s no longer enough.
“Students want to know what our reason is for existence,” said Steen. “They want to know how the industry is going to contribute to solving the worlds big problems in climate change, and in social justice. The older generation doesn’t know how to talk to the interests of today’s graduates. There’s a real communication problem.”
And that challenge extends to mining schools too. Many struggle to explain their purpose now given the drift between industry and academia.
The team at UBC has been working hard to reposition the university as a global leader in response to the climate crisis. Part of its local strategy centres around fixing the brand; getting out in the local community and showing people how essential mining education is to both the adaptation to and the fight against climate change.
“The one that always cuts through is when I tell people that we’ll need as much copper in the next 3-4 decades as we’ve produced in the whole of human history,” said Steen. “Also, with rare earth elements (REEs), if we want to build better after the COVID crisis, use more clean technology, and create more sustainable jobs, then that requires REEs.
“Presenting ourselves as part of the solution is essential. Our first job is to form alliances across the university and rebrand ourselves then, once we get that right, we can say: ‘how about hiring a new professor? Let’s target a young, dynamic person with diverse experience who’s going to build a team around them. Let’s re-energise’.
“Once you get new professors in and you have a purpose and agenda, then the students come too.”
Canadian universities seem to be leading the charge for this change. Many others across the globe are working to reposition themselves too, but the fact of the matter is that many mining schools are on their knees right now.
“At UBC, this year will be one of our smallest graduating cohorts,” said Steen, sadly. “We’re graduating about 25 mining engineering students and taking in 20 new ones. If you look at the statistics collectively from mining schools, we’re probably at our lowest point for graduates worldwide.
“I think we’ll see fewer mining schools coming out of this. The ones that do survive will have adapted and repositioned and can describe how they are contributing to solving the massive problems that society faces over the coming decades.”
At some point the industry’s going to have to directly invest in that pipeline, as will governments. The magnitude of the problem means that a collaborative effort is required.
Keeping up the good work
It would be easy to make this article all doom and gloom but, to inspire change, we need to talk about the good stuff too. There’s plenty being done right in mining education today.
Steen agreed: “We’re getting much better at engaging with new technologies, data analytics and the drive for Industry 4.0 is moving along well. We’re seeing mining research centres across the globe breaking down siloes and collaborating with others in different science and engineering fields; things like data science, biotechnologies, materials science… We’re finding new ways to solve technical problems and that’s very positive.”
Which led us nicely to BRIMM. The institute was founded in 2017 with a donation from Canadian mining visionary, Dr Peter Bradshaw. It’s mission is to connect scientists and engineers across UBC and promote cross-disciplinary research spanning the lifecycle of mining, from early exploration to mine closure and rehabilitation.
“It’s an unusual research centre in that it has three rules and conditions,” Steen explained. “If you want a project in BRIMM, it has to have an industry partner, involve people from outside of your own department/faculty, and it also has to have support from external funding agencies.
“It’s very industry focused, very interdisciplinary and we recognise that we can’t boil the ocean. Our strategy is to focus on the biggest challenges facing the industry. One of those is reducing the carbon footprint of mining; UBC is a leader in clean energy and sustainable mine energy systems is an area where we’re building expertise.
“The university is also strong in biotech and there are opportunities there around mine waste management.
“Then there’s the classic problem of complex orebodies and mine-to-mill optimisation using digital models to get geologists and engineers talking to each other in real time. And the last one is water. Mining is a massive consumer of water and water’s going to become a very scarce resource in some places.
“We choose people for these projects because they’re dynamic, entrepreneurial thinkers. The BRIMM team is ethnically diverse – only one person on the executive team was born in Canada – and the majority are woman, which I’m very proud of. The average age is around 40.
“BRIMM is a very different beast and our vision is finding ways to change the industry for the better.”
A new kind of executive
A few days before our interview, Steen messaged me to say that BRIMM and UBC had launched a new executive micro-certification in economic leadership for mining.
The certificate is revolutionary in several ways: the teaching is delivered remotely by a hybrid academia-industry led team and students can complete seven of the 13 courses (or all of them if feeling particularly enthusiastic) to achieve the certification over a period of up to five years.
BRIMM is also offering the first course within the programme for free to applicants who are unemployed and looking to get back into work.
I asked Steen how the certificate came about.
“I’ve been involved in professional education since about 2004,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot change in that time and, after the Global Financial Crisis, the preparedness of people to take time off work to complete a course and the preparedness of companies to let them do it really fell away.
“We are facing a skills shortage, so the dynamic, talented people that we do have need to make the most of the educational opportunities available to them.
“When the pandemic hit in March, one of my PhD students, Benjamin Cox, came to me and said: ‘many people I know have been laid off, and they’re pretty discouraged. I’d like to run a course on mineral processing and economics and make it free’.
“I thought that was really interesting, so we gave it a go. Nadja Kunz who leads the water theme at UBC came along to help and Ben Murphy, key industry director for gold at FLSmidth, got involved too. We got about 900 registrations in total and we gave the people who saw it through a digital certificate. It’s on a blockchain so it can’t be faked.
“The course was so successful that we decided to formalise it. It will accomplish three things: first is a direly needed service in the market for flexible learning at a reasonable price, verified and delivered by people who can be trusted. Second, in the majority of cases, there will be a fee attached to the course which will directly fund research at BRIMM. And third, it gives us a vehicle to take the research we’re doing now, out into the industry.”
Industry & academia converge
Which brought us full circle: is mining education well aligned with the industry’s needs today? Not completely but, thanks to courses like this, the two will be much more so going forward.
“It’s been a really interesting journey,” said Steen. “One of the responses we got when we launched the course was: ‘you’re disrupting the university business model’.
“It is quite different, and I’ve since discovered that UBC is developing a new policy on micro-credentials. We’re trying to align with that policy as it develops because usually, to get a degree course up and running it takes a minimum of three years for approvals.
“This is a new template for how we can deliver professional education. Sometimes the most challenging situations produce the best innovations.”
It will be interesting to see if other universities follow your lead, I noted.
“There are some universities that will struggle with the micro-certificate concept,” said Steen. “But we know we’re being watched. I just hope that other universities see there’s a huge opportunity and take another look at their mining schools as a source of growth, rather than something they consider for shutting down.”
Final question then, because the theme for Intelligent Miner content during December is sustainability. How can courses like this help to advance the mining industry?
“They will contribute massively,” said Steen. “Getting new ideas, new practices, showing new technologies through agile courses like this is only going to help the skills set of the industry and break down siloes. That’s the only way we’re going to achieve sustainable mining operations.
“Going forward, we need two types of people. First, are what you might call ‘T shaped’ people; those with deep expertise in one particular area, but also a broad understanding of how the industry works. And second, we need interpreters; people who can communicate mining to stakeholders outside of the industry and understand what they need too.
“These sorts of courses are essential in creating both kinds of people. They’re not the solution, but they’re a really important part of it.”