Back to school
Published by Jonathan Rowland,
Noddy McGeorge, SRK Consulting (SA), South Africa.
Over time, the development and operation of coal mines in South Africa to support both the domestic power market and the export market has needed an ongoing supply of people with the necessary skills. These skills are varied in description, ranging from financial, geology and surveying through to engineering. The constant risk is that they are in short supply.
The historical trend has been that the skills for the coal industry came from large established mining companies that owned several large mines with multiple mining methods and that were able to source the skills internally. They were sufficiently large to carry the costs necessary to train and mentor people through the organisation. This became a self-sustaining system with some surplus capacity that fed the remainder of the industry.
However, the emerging trend of ownership of mines in the South African coal sector is one of more numerous, smaller operations with only one mine in the portfolio and limited capacity to be self-supporting of skills required. Their skills base is often built by poaching from the existing skills pool developed by the large mining companies, while their contribution to the skills pool over the last few years has been reduced as cost pressures and lower prices have impacted the coal industry.
The migration of skilled workers out of the mining industry has also caused concern. While miners’ diversity of skills may make them easily transferable, it is not as easy to bring skilled workers in from other industry sectors.
Qualification vs experience
Often we measure the skills in terms of qualifications achieved, but forget the more important measure of the experience gained in application of the learning after qualification that creates the skill. It is important to bear in mind that it usually takes about 10 years of training and development after graduating with a bachelor’s degree (BEng, BSc) before a mining graduate is appointed to a substantive managerial position, when they start to make a full contribution to the mining company.1 The same is true for most of the other professional skills in the mining industry.
The traditional career path for mining graduates was in production and mine management with parallel exposure to specialised skills, for example, in fields like ventilation, rock engineering, mine planning, mineral resource evaluation, coal processing, engineering, risk management, finance and mineral asset valuation. Obviously the effectiveness of the skill is progressive during the process but the expectation that a qualification alone is a measure of skill is insufficient. This same process applies to most other disciplines required in the mining industry be they artisans, technicians or professionals but with different timeframes.
Another problem faced by the coal mining industry is that the existing skilled people – those who are transferring the knowledge – are more mature and approaching retirement. Due to historical circumstances of price cycles and cost pressures there are gaps in the pipeline of people following them. Obviously the mining commodity cycle has had a large influence on the skills pipeline where organisations have restructured and implemented cost saving measures for short-term survival. This has had unplanned consequential impacts on the skills inventory, which shows up when the commodity cycle turns upwards. This is particularly true in the coal industry, a bulk low margin business to start with.
The Mining Qualifications Authority (MQA) in South Africa does frequent surveys of skills in the industry and this helps to illustrate the cyclical nature of skills required. For example, in 2007 there were 239 mining engineers required by the South African mining industry; in 2013, that had dropped to just 40. Similarly, in 2007 there were 845 mining technicians required; in 2011, just 48.
The extension of “competent professionals” requirementsAnother emerging risk for the coal mining industry is the reservation of work for competent engineering professionals. This will place a larger responsibility and burden on the skills pipeline. This has historically been the case for the operating of mines by the use of the mine manager’s certificate, which was issued against a certain qualification standard and duration of work experience to ensure legal and safe operations of mines. In extending this concept to more areas of professional work, the regulators will have to ensure that qualifications are work-orientated and that there are ways to entrench experiential learning that will help solve the skills crisis.
The use of consultants to bridge the skills gap was often used as a stopgap measure where a skill was not a full time requirement. However the skills gap is also observed in the consulting industry where often the experiential part of skills is limited. The typical profile of a consultant used to be aged 50 with 30 yr work experience; today it is more likely to be a young ambitious person aged 30 with about 5 yr experience!
In solving the first part of the problem the Universities and Technicons are producing larger numbers of graduates and technicians with suitable academic qualifications, but obviously cannot do a lot to help with experiential learning. The universities are also good at providing post degree courses focused on specific industry topics that are useful to industry and to candidates for post bachelor qualifications. These courses are often presented by industry experts, which goes a long way to bridging the gulf between academic learning and the practical world application of the learning.
The experiential learning can be aided by better co-operation between the mining companies to allow short duration exposure to work experiences that are not available in single mine companies. For example, a small company may not have a longwall operation in its portfolio, so the mining engineer of the small company will not get any exposure to this mining method during their career. While this is not essential to the small company success, it is limiting the skill of the engineer.
We need to find a happy medium between extending the skills base and reinforcing the core competency of the individual. This can be done through employee exchange programmes or other suitable mechanisms to allow exposure outside the confines of the limited environment in a small company. Some examples of this in industry have been open technical days by the South African Colliery Managers Association on specific industry projects and Coaltech research committee process interactions, which expose people to other issues, as well as conference/workshops in industry etc. The system of registering for professional registration in South Africa, which requires mentorship and demonstration of work experience, is another way to ensure the skills diversity is entrenched as part of the skills pipeline. There is also a degree of compartmentalising of functions in large mining companies, as it is claimed this results in a more effective organisation and improves accountability. But it prevents the diversity of the skills in professional people.
There are also many obstacles to the opening of experiential learning to non-employees, such as protection of intellectual property, safety liability and poaching etc. that have to be resolved before any system will be trusted to be effective. However, if nothing is done the skills pool will be a poor place to fish!
The maintenance of the skills pool was historically done by the large mining companies wthat represented the coal industry but with increasing self-interest and competition this responsibility has evaporated and the economic consequence of this is becoming apparent. The responsibility of ensuring professionals have an effective skill base is currently managed by the individual and their positioning of themselves in the market to be attractive to potential clients. This was historically the responsibility of the coal industry and there needs to be a reversal of the trend if we are to support a sustainable coal industry.
In practise the operation/development of mines has always been a team collaboration of skills and the effectiveness of the team is often measured by the overlap between the different skill sets that allows better problem solving and communication. We should be therefore be trying to get more diversity into our skill base as opposed to an intense deep core skill that has no appreciation as to its role in the bigger picture.
- MUSINGWINI, C., PHILLIPS, H.R., and CRUISE, J.A., ‘A perspective on the supply and utilization of mining graduates in the South African context, (SAIMM; 2005).
Written by Noddy McGeorge. Edited by Jonathan Rowland.
About the author: Noddy McGeorge is Principal Mining Engineer at SRK Consulting (SA).
Read the article online at: https://www.worldcoal.com/special-reports/01042015/back-to-school-noddy-mcgeorge-srk-coal2136/
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