Gone are the days when mine workers took a job and stayed, in more or less the same position, for 30 years or more.
Today, younger generations of employees are looking for dynamic career prospects and meaningful work in a sector that contributes positively to environmental and societal progress.
Despite having a pivotal role to play in the green energy transition, the mining industry is not seen as providing that today. And that’s a problem because, for all the talk of digitization and automation, people are still central to mining processes.
In fact, one could argue that, given the current focus on delivering social value, people and the emotional intelligence they bring, are pivotal to the industry’s success.
Katy Scharf is a human resources (HR) professional with 20-years’ experience in the mining sector. She is a current HR business partner at Iamgold and has a wealth of knowledge on the challenges and opportunities surrounding people in mining.
When she offered to talk me through a few of them, I jumped at the chance.
“Mining is very much a background player in people’s lives,” she said. “The sector does not sell itself to the next generation, either as an employer or as a key provider of materials for the green energy revolution. There’s not always a direct link between product and purpose, and that needs to change.”
It’s going to take a significant investment of both time and money, as well as sustained positive performance around environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets to change that.
“Are mining companies ready and willing to market themselves to individuals who aren’t their direct consumers, but who could be part of their future workforce?” I asked.
“I think they’re starting to realise the importance,” said Scharf. “But the mining industry is not used to investing in people that way. It’s going to take time to deliver on the positive ESG commitments that companies have made, and to re-educate the public so that they’re willing to buy into that.
“Mining has a hard sell right now, but there are lots of really fulfilling aspects to working in the sector.”
Come to them (not vice versa)
Traditionally, the mining industry has been dependent upon local communities as a source of labour, recruiting people who valued stability over glamour in their work. The workforce essentially came to the industry rather than vice versa, but this is no longer always the case.
As mining processes and technologies have evolved, so too have the roles and skills required by these digitally enabled mine sites. Today, mining companies often find themselves in direct competition with other industries for skilled workers.
The shift towards remote working practices, particularly following COVID-19, has also meant that the talent pool for many sectors is no longer constrained by the usual factors, like geography. The war for talent is hotting up, and mining operations are currently at a slight disadvantage as many jobs still require boots on the ground.
Scharf believes that both recruitment and retention can be improved by introducing more fluidity and flexibility in career progression.
“Today, there’s no reason why a truck operator should stay as an operator if they’re keen and capable of doing more,” she said. “Why should traditional career pathways and role expectations apply when modern skillsets (and mindsets) are much more transferable than in the past?
“For example, if a teacher or doctor came to work in a mining operation, it might be expected that they could only operate equipment given how different their original field of work is. In reality, their ability to think strategically or handle a complex, multi-stakeholder project could make them a really valuable team leader.
“Going forward, mining companies need to challenge the minimum requirements for different roles and look outside of their traditional talent pool if they want to find the best people. After all, mining is a very teachable industry.”
It’s true. There will always be people who have a super niche skillset and are happy to stay working in their chosen niche, and that’s fine. But there are others who would find their work more exciting and fulfilling if their responsibilities and career possibilities were expanded according to their holistic skillset.
Committed HR professionals and visionary leaders will play an important part in challenging preconceived notions of what operators or mine managers should look like and where they could go with the right support.
The value of people
One of the greatest opportunities that most mining organisations haven’t tapped into yet, is rethinking the way in which they value people.
“Today there’s a very specific flow of value in mining; the mining, maintenance and procurement teams are usually seen as driving value through organisations,” Scharf explained. “Most companies don’t value teams in areas such as social and environmental responsibility in quite the same way yet.
“But there’s a big opportunity to combine traditional value chains with new forms of thinking to create value. If there’s good integration between the two, we could potentially see some really cool new product streams and initiatives come out of mining.”
She added that there will come a point when ESG becomes less about dotting I’s and crossing T’s, and more about understanding the potential value generation of the industry’s work.
“Once we’ve nailed that and we start to bring greater diversity into organisations, allow people to work outside of their siloes, and pay them equitably, then the recruits will come,” she said.
DEI – what are we missing today?
“So how can move the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) agenda forward?” I asked. “So that we’re not just talking about it, but actually living it.
“Financial investment is the biggest thing that’s missing today,” Scharf replied. “There are some organisations who have recognised that DEI requires a significant financial investment.
“But mining is a longstanding industry, and there’s a lot of infrastructure in place at operations that does not lend itself well to a diverse and inclusive workforce. It can be hard convincing companies to make that investment.”
There are simple things, for instance, changing signage on sites, or using inclusive titles on job descriptions, which don’t cost much money and can be implemented relatively easily.
But projects, for example, to create new dry facilities, offer a wider range of sizes for personal protective equipment, or installing accessibility options for mining equipment, can cost much more.
That said, the return on investment in terms of skills and thinking by broadening the workforce could be massive. Again, it comes down to how companies measure value.
Scharf said that, for many companies, it’s a chicken or egg first, kind of situation. Do they build a diverse workforce first then create the ideal workplace, or invest money and hope that people will come?
“I think you have to do both,” she said. “Companies must make efforts to attract diversity because that takes time. Diverse people haven’t generally been accepted in mining, so we need to show everyone that the industry is welcoming and accommodating of their needs.
“While companies are doing that, they need to invest to make sure that their environments are more inclusive and adaptable. That’s really important; don’t assume which changes people might need. Ask them and be open to changing things accordingly.”
Better workplaces for everyone
As Kelly Bron Johnson of Canadian advisory firm, Completely Inclusive, reminds us in this webinar, “companies need to invest to make workplaces more accessible now, not just for the workforce they want to attract, but for the workforce that they’ve got now”.
Because, inclusive facilities and practices benefit everyone, regardless of whether people identify as diverse or not.
“It’s so true,” said Scharf. “It’s not until changes are made that we realise how much people appreciate them.
“I supported one mine to create a gender-neutral dry facility, and we found that lots of people preferred to use that facility because it was more private than the gender-specific ones. What that showed was that the workforce valued its privacy, and the existing dry facilities didn’t meet their needs.
“The issue then became that the gender-neutral facility was soon bursting at the seams and the people we created it for might not have felt safe there anymore. The existing facilities needed to be made more inclusive and welcoming too.
“Everyone had a good reason for wanting to use the new facility, and the way to deal with it was not by saying ‘you don’t belong here’”.
Culture was a central theme throughout my discussion with Scharf.
The mining industry, as a whole, has a long-standing culture that needs to be disrupted if the current recruitment-retention paradigm is to be changed.
Hiring 20 diverse recruits will not make a difference unless those people are incredibly strong and can find a way to work differently in the face of adversity. Without a significant cultural shift, those people will simply leave or blend into the status quo that already exists.
It’s important to create space for people (for everyone) to push cultural boundaries if companies want to see positive progress.
“Knowledge retention and transfer within organisations, and also across the industry, is another important topic,” said Scharf.
“Today, very few companies can offer a person everything – all the experiences and learning opportunities they might need or want in their career. Career pathways are changing; they’re much more dynamic, and companies need to learn how to let people go without that loss causing problems for the organisation.”
Again, this speaks to culture, flexibility in roles and responsibilities, and creating environments that people want to return to after they’ve been elsewhere and got the skills or experiences that they want. Ultimately, allowing people to leave, gain experiences and return, can only enrich mining companies.
“Also, what does the gig economy look like in mining?” asked Scharf. “Why couldn’t the mining industry have a more transient workforce in the future? There are roles, for instance, in engineering and consulting, which lend themselves well to that. Exposure to other industries could bring huge benefits back into mining.
“But to achieve that, the industry needs to structure its workforce to support change, to stay relevant and to keep people engaged.”
The future is human
The long and the short of this conversation is that the mining industry has focused a lot of time and energy in recent years on technology to make its operations safer, more cost effective and productive.
But it’s important to balance that with investment in humans, because the emotional intelligence that people bring to organisations is irreplaceable and critical to success.
To differentiate themselves in a socially and environmentally focused future, mining companies need people.
“Humans have been hugely undervalued in recent years,” said Scharf. “And I think we’re going to make a comeback.
“The world that we want to live in needs the compassion, empathy and sense of community that humans naturally bring to work. Every element of an organisation can benefit from human thought and consideration.
“I think we’re going to see a shift in what companies are looking for in people. For a long time, the mining industry wanted people to be more like machines. And now, we’ve got all the technology we need, it’s time to think about what we want people to do and be.”