What is the answer to the skills gap in mining?

Amidst high demand and labour shortages, companies are beginning to feel the crunch of the skills gap in mining. Fixing the issue will involve challenging a few key misconceptions...


contact-Bianca Déprés

Bianca Déprés

Energy & Natural Resources Associate at Pinsent Masons

contact-Sasha Suzdaleva

Sasha Suzdaleva

Community Marketing Manager

The skills gap in mining is hardly a new issue. An ageing workforce has been a primary concern for the industry for more than a decade: more than half of Canadian miners are over 45 years old, while more than a quarter of workers in the US are projected to be over 55 by this year. Those numbers are troubling on their own, but the problem is beginning to take on a new urgency. As increased demand for critical metals coincide with labour shortages, companies are beginning to feel the crunch. And things will only get more difficult as older miners continue to retire at a steady rate.

The obvious solution is to attract new workers to replace their departing colleagues. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Enrolment rates in mining education programmes have been declining across the western world at a time when more specialised knowledge is needed. Industry respondents have said this skills gap will be a major barrier to mining’s technological advancement, and that attracting computer science and deep technology experts is critical to the sector’s continued development.

So what are the causes of the skills gap in metals and mining, and how can the industry meaningfully address them?

A reputation problem becomes a talent problem

When discussing the skills gap in mining, it’s crucial to understand its reputation amongst students. Too often, young people perceive the sector as “dark, dangerous and dirty,” notes the executive search firm Swann in its whitepaper on the subject. Environmental, social and labour factors have all left an impression that the industry is unglamorous and insecure.

“The lack of employment opportunities during the most recent downturn (2012-2016) and uncertainty in the industry has been a contributing factor. The lack of awareness of the opportunities also means that students will never consider careers in the sector. Negative perception is also to blame. When the word “mining” is mentioned, most people, especially the youth, think of sweaty men in overalls, hard-hats, and drilling machines. That is not a true reflection of the mining industry and a lot of work needs to be done to change that perception,” commented Bianca Depres, Energy & Natural Resources Associate at Pinsent Masons and Board Member at Young Mining Professionals.

Even if students can overcome these perceptions, the industry itself will need to do more to attract candidates who will ensure its future. The need to digitalise operations becomes more important by the day, and those projects will require data scientists and other technology-oriented professionals. While these workers may traditionally gravitate toward the tech sector, there’s room to show that these workers have a home in the mining industry.

Bianca went on to say: “The industry is well placed to attract workers with the right skill sets with driverless trains, trucks and drones on mine sites but new modular courses, designed to upskill workers in key areas such as analytics, robotics and IT must be introduced in mining programs at university.

Programmes such as the Mining Indaba Young Leader's Day are very much needed to expose young people, particularly females to the various available career opportunities in mining.”

Powering the energy transition

If mining companies want to overcome the skills gap and secure the talent they need to future-proof their operations, they’ll need to address these reputational concerns. Luckily, the answer may be simple: promote what the industry is already doing. As Swann’s whitepaper reports, students often see mining as a low-tech player in a high-tech world. While the sector is less digitally mature than comparable counterparts, skills gap crisis can lead to opportunity. By publicising the industry’s technological progress and emphasising how candidates will have room to grow in the field, mining companies can combat misconceptions about their work. Emphasising mining’s connection to the tech industry is another way to address students’ priorities.

“Mining companies need to compete with the Ubers and the Googles of the world and attract the IT, the mechatronics, the robotics people and get them to look at mining. Mining companies also need to get young people to understand what is really going on in those same disciplines and how it can serve and be applied in the mining industry.” Bianca concluded.

To ensure a successful energy transition, tech companies will need to produce sustainable technology using materials such as cobalt, copper, lithium and aluminium. Metals and mining companies will be essential partners in this goal, and they can draw in new talent by promoting that fact.

Ultimately, closing the skills gap in mining will require a sustained, multi-faceted campaign across the industry. But by addressing a few key reputational points, companies can turn the tide in their favour.

Want to know how to attract talent that will lead the way to mining’s future? Register for our panel, "Mind the skills gap: how mining can attract talent to help solve the energy transition”, in partnership with Young Mining Professionals here and if you’re in London the following week, join our in-person networking by registering here.  

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