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Mind The (Skills) Gap

World Coal,

As one of world’s oldest and most established industrial markets, you could be forgiven for thinking that mining had reached a state of perpetual equilibrium. However, to the contrary, global demand for energy and materials, such as steel and concrete, is fuelling a period of growth and expansion. At the same time, a few industry giants are taking their first exploratory steps into new territories, such as Mongolia and parts of South America. It is an exciting and yet worrying time for forward-planning mining businesses as they consider how to fill the vacancies that arise from expansion.

The ramifications of the global mining crisis in the 1990s will be felt in the form of a serious labour shortage within the next 5 – 10 years. In the 1990s, the UK mining industry found itself irreparably damaged following the miner strikes of the 1980s, and globally the industry was affected by the falling price of metals. At the same time, alternative “clean” career paths such as ICT and computing emerged, and graduates and school leavers no longer saw mining as an attractive career prospect. Unfortunately, the recruiters of the period had little success in changing this perception, and the effect this would have on the industry 20 years later was not high on their list of priorities.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the coal mining workforce is ageing. As the post-war generation reach retirement age, there are few workers waiting in the wings to step into their senior and mid-level manager positions. Without an injection of fresh talent, the labour resourcing requirements of global projects will soon become impossible to meet. This is particularly evident in Canada. Of the current mining workforce within the country, 40% is due for retirement within five years.

The sector is now experiencing a surge in interest from applicants under the age of 30, though many of these are from what are commonly termed the X and Y generations and are attracted by the prospects of working with new technology that has developed to support the industry. Few want to earn their stripes in the dirt and challenging conditions of the mines, preferring to work within an office environment. But even if they were keen to gain hands-on experience, the level of knowledge required for a middle-manager ranges from 10 – 15 years, creating a skills gap that will be difficult to fill.

Within the coal mining industry as a whole, job positions are opening at all levels, though where workers are sourced from is changing. Many companies have to meet Government targets for the employment of local blue-collar workers, meaning a majority of employees will be sourced from the immediate vicinity of the mines. Legislation is less strict with regards to white-collar employees, and so the shortage of mid- and senior-level positions is being tackled by sourcing candidates globally, though at a higher cost.

While recruiters scramble to plug the gap, experts predict a staffing shortage of between 250,000 – 350,000 professional positions across all commodities globally by 2020.

Staff retention is a further issue. As projects come to an end, the trend is for larger, international businesses to focus on minimising staff turnover. Rather than letting employees move onto new projects with other companies, many are transferring staff internally and across geographies. This is having a negative effect on those small organisations running just two or three key sites. Staff are unwilling to work their way through a company to reach a senior level position, only to have to leave and begin the process again in another company where they might have to re-join the queue for promotion. The reality is that skilled workers are being turned off smaller companies because there are fewer opportunities to continue within the same organisation. While they may have a better chance of having their abilities noticed in a small business, most prefer to deal with employers that can promise long-term careers and the opportunity to build an ongoing track record.

The record number of acquisitions this year has been indicative of this trend, as large companies have moved to buy out smaller companies. The result has been twofold: there are more opportunities than ever for staff to move internally; and the speed of business growth has increased. This is especially so because obtaining licenses for existing, rather than new sites, is quicker and easier than gaining fresh planning permission.

With regards migration, legislative changes and developing industry bases have also influenced the relocation of Europe’s skills base. For example, in 2007 the German Government ordered the country to shut down its black coal mines by 2018. By the time this happens some 35,000 jobs will have been lost, a dramatic change considering Germany was once the world’s fifth largest producer of black coal. However, the 35,000 coal miners need not necessarily fear as they will not be short of roles in the many other growing territories.

Coal production has grown fastest in Asia, with China topping the list of the world’s producers. The country most in demand, however, by candidates and employers alike is Australia. Mining is key to the economic stability of this country and workers here are guaranteed a decent wage – as well as decent weather. It is an attractive prospect for many looking to make their next move. Canada is a close second, another country in which coal represents a major proportion of exports.

South America and Mongolia are markets to watch, although language is a challenge in both of these locations and English-only speaking expatriates are unlikely to want to move to these regions immediately. Nonetheless, market movements indicate that both will increase in popularity over the coming years. Many applicants will be moving from Germany, while others are leaving the US, eastern and western Europe in search of brighter prospects. The proportion of Indian and Filipino candidates has also increased noticeably.

Coal has been powering industry since the 1800s, and despite the growth in “clean” technologies, there is no reason why the market will not continue to expand – apart from a lack of managerial staff necessary to guide the future of the trade. It now falls to forward-thinking companies and enterprising recruiters to source the skilled workers so desperately needed to keep this integral industry afloat.

Author: Graeme Lingenfelder is head of mining at Spencer Ogden, a global energy recruiter serving eight branches of the energy market including mining. He has more than a decade of experience recruiting for energy and construction companies around the world.

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