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Workforce trends in the mining industry

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World Coal,

With the availability of skilled workers decreasing, James Holden, Spencer Ogden, UK, assesses future workforce trends in the mining industry.

Having assessed the development of the skills shortage in the mining industry over the past two decades here, this article will focus on future workforce trends. Predictions about the future of business are rarely that accurate: unexpected economic change, new technology and shifting consumer demand can throw calculations off by miles. However, it is possible to suggest that, despite market instability, an increasing global population and rapidly developing markets will place increased demand on mined resources and will further challenge the industry’s workforce.

Workers in the driving seat

Wages are one aspect of the industry that is particularly hard to predict. Despite the upturn in the market, salaries have been continuing to fall or are, at best, holding steady. Employers have seemingly learned from errors during previous market booms when they increased salaries to unsustainable levels. Nonetheless, if the market continues to expand and the demand for specific skills increases, it would be surprising if wages remain steady. The power is now in the hands of the worker.

Developing regions will play key role

Something that can be said with certainty is that the greatest demand for natural resources will come from developing nations, such as China, India and Brazil. In these regions industrialisation and population growth are already resulting in a greater demand for metals such as the base metals used in construction.

Of course China is also a manufacturing hub, which makes it a core growth market for the mining industry. Many of the gadgets admired and desired by consumers around the world require a significant volume of rare earth elements during production; China controls 95 – 97% of the world’s supply of these. As consumer demand for such technology increases, so too will the number of mining projects in the area.

The risk is that these growth regions will stretch the industry’s skills quota to its limits. However, the mining industry is already adapting to meet demand, employing strategies including technology automation.


Last year a survey by research firm, BDO International, forecast that the industry will begin to evolve from a blue collar to a white collar workforce. The survey’s respondents said they expect a negative impact as a result of a shrinking skills pool and half voiced the opinion that substituting technology for labour will have a positive influence on business. Whether the answer is automation or not, many companies are already adopting innovative mining techniques in order to improve internal efficiency and productivity. Technology, such as driverless trucks and trains, will help to reduce costs and improve safety levels; unfortunately these autonomous and remote mining methods will also lead to a reduction in the number of jobs the market can offer.

Skills migration

Another avenue being explored, particularly by the most forward-thinking organisations, is skills migration. The energy industry can be quite traditional in its view of skills and job descriptions. If a person is trained in oil and gas engineering, that tends to be the market they commit to throughout their career. The same can usually be said for a person in the mining industry. However, it does not have to be this way. Some businesses are now considering workers that come from other sectors for their projects. Of course there are provisos, for instance, the worker must show aptitude and their set of skills must have some relevance and application to the market into which they are moving. Other underemployed groups, such as older workers, are also proving more attractive.

Migration does not always occur across sectors. Multi-skilled workers are in high demand because they can move around, filling multiple positions within their existing market. An employee that has previously moved from operations into construction will have acquired additional skills that are valuable to most employers.

Industry roles

Pivotal to filling the skills gap will be the role of the recruiter (in house or outsourced). It will be their job to identify and attract new staff into the industry, whether those staff are graduates, not yet decided on their career path, or experienced workers in other industries, able to migrate across the space. The recruiters will actively sell the company brand and build its positive reputation on the job market. Of course this role becomes easier if companies take action to build their standing by boosting their marketing activities and advertising the benefits of a role in the mining industry.

While the crisis of the 90s has passed, there is still a need to change external opinion of the industry. It is not necessarily true that energy is seen as dirty, but it is true that it is not attracting the right graduates to enter into it. In the UK, key engineering-based colleges and universities, such as Southampton, Birmingham, Plymouth and Aberdeen, are only sending a small fraction of their engineering graduates onto roles in mining. This will eventually make it hard to meet the demands of the market. The only way to prevent that happening is to promote the industry to students that either have not chosen their course, or are yet to select their graduate career paths. Employers should look to approach universities and colleges on an annual basis, participating in career fairs and making themselves available through career services.

The outlook for the mining industry is positive. Demand is on the up, projects are receiving investment once again and the economy has stabilised. However,

complacency must not seep in. Competition for skilled workers is increasing and the threat of a worker shortage is very real. If this danger is to be minimised, companies need to take immediate action – not in five years when the effect of the crisis has become apparent.


It takes years to develop a worker from a graduate to a middle-management employee with the critical skills required to keep the industry moving. The whole industry needs to come together (this means recruiters, employers, educators and governments) to create a strategy for skills generation. Automation and technology can only reduce the need for workers so far; fresh talent must join the industry now if it is going to withstand the skills storm when it hits. While the industry waits for that talent to mature, employers need to be open to alternative routes, bringing in skilled workers from other sectors and considering skill sets they might previously have not.

Written by James Holden. Edited by

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