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Mining for talent – lessons from CIMTL23

Carly Leonida presents insights on attracting, training and retaining the mining workforce of tomorrow from the CIMTL23 convention

I have shamelessly borrowed the title of this article from a conference stream that ran at the Canadian Institute for Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum’s (CIM) annual convention held in Montreal, Canada, last week.

The talent shortage, war on talent – whatever you want to call it – is becoming ever more acute in the mining sector.

The number of graduates choosing to study core mining-related disciplines, such as geology and mining engineering, remains low. This is partly due to outdated perceptions of the sector as a dirty, polluting and unsafe place to work, rather than a critical industry that is enabling the low-carbon energy transition.

Meanwhile, the average age of the mining workforce is rising. Industry experts with a wealth of experience are having to delay retirement to fulfil key roles and there is a real risk that, when they do retire, the vital knowledge these individuals hold could be lost rather than passed on to colleagues and retained by organisations.

While mining processes are advancing fast to incorporate technologies like artificial intelligence and automation, there is a dearth of talent with the right skills and knowledge to support their application and to fill new future-critical roles.

Companies are scrambling to upskill their workforces and support employees through this change, while simultaneously trying to recruit and/or retain workers who are being tempted away by other, seemingly, more attractive sectors.

Although barriers to entry for diverse talent are being broken down, mining organisations are still struggling to provide workplaces and cultures that are accessible, inclusive and ‘safe’ in all senses (physically, psychologically, culturally etc.) and this shows in the demographics.

In short, while the desire for a rich, diverse and extensive pool of talent is present (as is an understanding of its criticality), and the opportunities for future industry growth when supported by the right people are immense, measurable change has, thus far, been slow.

Unfortunately, there is no Field of Dreams style “build it and they will come” solution for this conundrum. The industry must become more actively involved in nurturing and growing the pipeline of talent it needs and wants, and it must commit to long-term, demonstrable progress.

Harnessing gamification to engage youth

This is exactly what the Mining for Talent stream at CIMTL23 acknowledged and detailed. The presentations covered the full gamut of topics from educational programs and new learning technologies to leadership development.

Some of my favourite speakers included Julie Moskalyk and Jennifer Beaudry from Science North’s Dynamic Earth, who presented alongside Danny Wilchesky and Dan Stopnicki of video game developer, D+D Skunkworks.

Science North is the largest travelling exhibition operator in Canada with a focus on science communication. The organisation is a key contributor to science-related curriculums for young people across the country and, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moskalyk, Beaudry and their team worked hard to pivot their educational offerings.

View from the Mining Evolution online game. Image: Science North/D+D Skunkworks

In taking their resources online, the team began to map out the creation of a mining-themed game, accessible on desktop and mobile devices to help engage audiences who were (at the time) isolated.

With the help of D+D Skunkworks, and the CIM, Mining Evolution was born. The game, which borrows inspiration from the likes of Sim City, supplements and supports educational programs for youngsters in grades 4-12 with the aim of making mining fun and relatable through experiential learning – something that is critical to the way Gen Zs learn.

Five learning modules guide players through topics such as exploration, construction, ore processing, environmental responsibility and, later, career pathways. These introduce students to different roles while linking the industry back to critical minerals and the role they play in our day-to-day lives.

The beta version of Mining Evolution is currently undergoing testing with a commercial launch planned for September 2023, and the teams encouraged the audience to try it out for themselves.

While the game is initially aimed at Canadian citizens, Moskalyk and Beaudry said that other national versions could be a future possibility.

Boosting Indigenous employment through targeted programmes

Staying with the subject of youth involvement, Brandon Harris of Peter Lucas Project Management and Lester Cey of Morris Interactive, gave a fascinating presentation on a pre-employment programme called ‘Digital Transformation in Potash Mining’.

This was designed and developed by Morris Interactive with support from Peter Lucas; the International Minerals Innovation Institute; potash mining company, Mosaic; and four Nations/First Nations – Cowessess, Zagmie Anishinabek, Ochapowace and Kahkewistahaw.

Through the eight-week programme, the partnership aims to encourage more Indigenous talent into the Saskatchewan potash mining workforce. The blended learning curriculum includes two weeks of hands-on work underground, surface tours, textbooks (provided in the students’ first languages), digital resumé development, and virtual reality (VR) and gaming components, among others.

The first intake of 12 students was in January 2022 and the programme was so popular that applications more than doubled for the second intake. Now in its third iteration, over 300 applications were submitted for the latest intake.

Both Harris and Cey agreed that the programme’s success should be measured, not on its popularity or graduation numbers, but how many students go on to sustained employment in the local mining workforce – something that will be monitored closely in the future.

They added that the partnership would be looking to increase support for graduates to ensure they are brought forward into employment, increase the programme’s capacity in the future, and perhaps roll it out to other industries and provinces too.

New technology for a future-fit workforce

Another organisation that is pioneering the use of experiential learning technologies in mining, this time for mine operators, is NORCAT.

CEO, Don Duval, explained how important the supervisor role is today in retaining good mine staff – there is a direct correlation between the competencies and skillsets of supervisors and staff retention rates – and many mining companies are now actively investing in developing their supervisors as a defensive retention strategy.

That said, the supervisor role is evolving, and Duval noted that, in the future, supervisors will likely utilise technology to ensure their workers are fit-for-duty each day.

There are tech tools available now, such as the Creyos online cognitive assessment platform, that allow this, and Duval said that taking a more proactive stance around workforce mental health could help to boost the industry’s attractiveness and staying power as an employer going forward.

He also talked about some fast-growing operator training and support tools, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) training aids, and also autonomous and tele remote-control capabilities that allow operators to complete their work from a safe and comfortable location.

Jennifer Beaudry from Science North delivers her portion of the presentation at the CIM 2023 conference in Montreal, Canada. Image: The Intelligent Miner

NORCAT uses VR simulators from ThoroughTec Simulation to help train underground operators and understand how they learn. Duval said that simulators like these are now so good that, in some cases – for instance, where machines will be operated remotely – they can provide all the training needed before operators are drafted into a production setting.

“The lines between training and operating are starting to blur,” he told the crowd.

According to the Future Workforce Study Global Report by Dell and Intel, 66% of employees globally would be willing to use VR/AR products as a training tool, and Duval said this is now the fastest growing area of NORCAT’s business, accounting for around 25% of its work.

He predicted that, in the future, these technologies would be used as fully engaged operator tools to help improve performance as well as provide initial training.

Leadership: sharing lessons from the C-suite

Leadership is also an important part of the conversation. Angelina Mehta, General Manager for Joint Ventures at Rio Tinto Aluminum, spoke about the lessons she has gleaned from her 25-year career in mining, as well as experiences in the mining investment, private equity and banking sectors.

Mehta spoke about the concept of leadership and how it’s not just about the people in the C-suite. “We’re all leaders,” she said. “Everyone has a role to play and the ability to take charge of their own destiny.”

Some of her key learnings included the following:

  • Historical performance is never a predictor of future performance
  • Take time to learn about the people and cultures within your organisation
  • Consistency in decision making is vital – without that, confidence in leadership quickly erodes
  • Be patient through the tough times and be prepared to adjust your leadership style and approaches accordingly
  • Analyse mistakes and learn from them
  • Principles are vital
  • Read signals from the workforce and talk about where the organisation is heading
  • Try not to focus too much on the short term – it’s important to stay ahead of industry changes
  • Humanity is so important! Take the time to ask people how they are

Through sharing her personal stories and experiences, Mehta embodied this final point perfectly. 

“My ‘rules to live by’ are: laugh a lot,” she told the audience. “Say thank you and appreciate your team’s work. Lead by example where possible. Trust your team – they will show you your blind spots. Be accountable. Be prepared to have tough conversations. And be sure to show people kindness and empathy.”

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