In a world where image and perception have almost as much impact on opinion and decision making as reality, the coal industry is in a problematic position.
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In a world where image and perception have almost as much impact on opinion and decision making as reality, the coal industry is in a problematic position. Anti-coal protests, such as we have seen in the UK last month, when the anti-coal group ‘Leave it in the Ground’ stopped a train on its way to the Drax power plant in order to offload its cargo, significantly damage the industry’s public image. Demonising industries in this way leaves them open to being made a scapegoat, exactly what a UK Government Select Committee has been accused of doing to energy firms by the think tank ‘Progressive Vision’, which has criticised the Select Committee for holding energy firms accountable for rising energy prices in the UK. As the think tank noted: ‘In the short-term, politicians can do little to alleviate these prices, but they risk exacerbating the issue in the long-term by discouraging much needed investment.'
A bad public image now may lead to a worsening situation in the future through lack of investment and interest. This could in fact be a wider trend in the coal industry. Consider, for example, current concerns over the potential for a future skills shortage in the coal mining industry. A recent survey by the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) has found that a current shortage of skills in the industry has led to higher salaries and longer hours, with 73% of those surveyed saying that they work more than 50 hours/week, and many employers now paying more for employees with less experience. Members of the Institute feel that the skills base is stretched to capacity and therefore they feel under pressure at work, often being left short-staffed. This situation could have a negative impact on the industry. In the short-term, there will be, as the Institute observes, less time for training and developing staff, which must in turn stifle innovation in the industry. In the long-term, the present shortage could develop into a complete absence of skilled workers. Evidently the industry needs strategies in place for the long-term development of a sustainable work force.
Indeed, companies such as BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto have been urged to address the problem, particularly in Australia. The Northern Inland Regional Development Board has said that it wants BHP to help find answers to the skills shortage before it moves ahead with plans for a new coal mine in the Caroona Basin. Whilst in Mackay, Rio Tinto is addressing the problem of encouraging employees that have relocated to the area to stay. However, as the AusIMM considers, this is probably an issue too large to be addressed and solved by individual companies. Legislation is needed to unite mining ventures behind a common future goal. One option that the Institute suggests is support from higher education. This approach is already being taken in some areas. For example, a new partnership between Curtin University and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy has been developed in Australia, whilst Sandvik has established a mining qualification that can be achieved at a selection of international universities. You can read more about Sandvik’s initiative in this issue, from page 40.
To return to the importance of perception, there may be cause for concern over the impact that demonising the coal industry may have on the decisions of aspiring and idealistic graduates for whom choosing an industry with such negative connotations in the popular consciousness would be a bold choice. At such an important time for the industry, as it steps up to fill the impending energy gap, this may be an extra hurdle it would rather not have to clear.