The last mining downturn left us with a shortage of mining engineers, and the effects of this are far-reaching. Not only does the industry need to continue to focus on encouraging young people back, but graduate engineers who are at the beginning of their careers are facing a different trajectory of learning while they’re on the job.
Here’s what we, as mining companies, need to remember as we face this challenge.
The skills shortage has affected how engineers learn on the job.
In the past, mining engineers had the benefit of learning gradually once they began working. Typically, in the early part of their careers, their focus would have been on learning how to do the immediate task at hand. Beyond that, it would have taken time – including time in the field rather than behind a computer screen – to understand the various processes and how they interact with each other.
This broader understanding of the whole system includes getting to grips with the production process and schedule, identifying gaps as well as excess, and knowing what adds value and where compromises can be made.
Unfortunately, this generation of mining engineers isn’t likely to have the same gradual and organic broadening of knowledge as their older counterparts. Because of dwindling graduation rates during the last downturn and the resulting gap in talent, there will no doubt be opportunities for rapid advancement and relocation for this generation. But, with a shortage of people to do the work, will they have the time in their day to leave their design work to experience the operational side of things in the same way that previous generations have? Probably not.
Without this broader understanding, problems can arise. As a technically minded person starting out in the mining industry, it’s common to become immersed in the intricate details related to your respective design outcome. While this is inevitable, there is a risk of tunnel vision – focusing only on the aspects of the process that are important to your outcome, rather than on the overarching priority for the operation. Likewise, too much focus on short-term priorities can lead to a long-term bottleneck being overlooked, or other processes falling over, which puts the business at significant financial risk.
Mining companies need to be proactive.
The supply of mining engineering graduates remains in deficit. Even the most recent enrolments will not become a part of the mining engineering supply for at least another four years. Added to that, many students are deterred by the cyclical nature of the mining industry and are now opting for dual majors in business, commerce, economics and finance. So, some of these enrolments will now take five years to graduate and may never actually enter the mining industry.
This talent pool shrinkage poses a real challenge to our industry, and mining companies need to take the long view when responding to it. We need to learn from our mistakes and maintain industry operating discipline.
This means that, rather than ceasing sponsorships, vacation work experience and graduate employment programs – and thereby further crippling university enrolments – we need to support students and graduates. Even through downturns, the opportunity is there for engineering graduates to continue to be employed and be directly involved in the operational side very early in their careers, so that they can truly understand their trade.
By at least guaranteeing their employment in an operational setting, we have the power to improve enrolment numbers and attract talented engineers who would otherwise be deterred by poor job prospects and security in our cycling mining industry.