February 2012

Guest Column

Using the "gig economy" to surmount the skills shortage

By Kirk Rodgers

Anyone seeking proof of the demographic “cliff” that the mining sector is heading for could have found it at a recent evening in Toronto where some 300 of the industry’s movers and shakers gathered for Sandvik’s Annual Oyster Night. Engineers and geologists in their 30s and 40s were scarce in a sea of grey hair. Many attendees were in their 60s and 70s, kept on by companies desperate to retain access to their skills and experience.

Ten years from now, many of those thronging the event will be unavailable to the industry, which is driving an urgent need to get the most from the shrinking pool of mining engineers and geologists.

Back to the future?

For a possible answer to this future crisis, we need to look back to the pre-computer era – the age of slide rules and survey chains. Mining engineers of that time used their training and experience to plan, provide leadership, train junior staff and, in general, manage operations. Geologists assessed information collected by others to understand ore bodies.

These professionals delegated work to skill-focused, lesscostly specialists who carried out the daily work. It was a good system and it got the best from the engineers’ and geologists’ strengths.

Fast-forward to the current era, where computers are everywhere. Mining engineers are now able to address the whole operation of a mine, including day-to-day minutiae, such as giving a development crew directions. Geologists can collect the data, tabulate, apply confidence limits and draft cross-sections. Who needs a staff when one or two people can do it all?

As a result, highly skilled engineers and geologists find themselves logging cores, laying out haulage ramps and performing tasks that could be done by technicians. While today’s information systems are powerful, they have had the effect of making these professions much more critical to the industry. What happens if there are not enough of these professionals available?

Work with, not against, the workforce trends

It is better to use the best of historic practice, combined with current workforce and technology trends, to build a brighter future for the mining sector. Mining engineers and geologists need to get back to “engineering” and “geology” as these terms were defined 50 years ago. Let them use their training and education to plan and lead operations and delegate day-to-day tasks to technicians trained in more narrow sets of functions. This will open up mining companies’ abilities to employ people with less formal education, but who are bright and can learn specific tasks.

Use the power of information technology appropriately: many of these technical workers could be based in an office far away from the mine, which seems to be more to the liking of some of the newer generation. This plan makes sense because of several trends we see in society today:

  • Many young people are foregoing post-secondary education, reluctant to take on debts when there is so little certainty in the job market.
  • Studies on demographics indicate that there is a significant “hole” in the current 30- and 40-year-old age range of potential minerals industry professionals.
  • Older blue collar workers, displaced from their industrial jobs, are eager to retrain.
  • Powerful networked computers allow large files to be transferred easily and for teams to collaborate remotely.
  • The emerging “gig economy,” in which independent workers are engaged on a project-by-project basis, developing skills in response to opportunities, moving from one company to another with ease.

These trends make it possible to envisage the idea of a distributed team of specialists, working under a mining engineer’s or geologist’s supervision, to explore for and operate mines. The result? More work opportunities for a broader spectrum of people, some of whom may not have to relocate to a mine site, and more people to help fill the oncoming demographic hole. Best of all, they can get the greatest work from their mining engineers and geologists.
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