Sept/Oct 2008

Voices from Industry

Mining demographics

By B. Payne

It is no stretch to say that our sector’s prosperity will depend on how we adapt to our country’s changing demographics over the next two decades. It is also not far-reaching to predict that within any sector, it will become increasingly difficult to find skilled workers. Why? Let’s step back a few years.

When I was born in 1949 in Coleman, Alberta, Canada had, on average, 28 births per 1,000 people. Today, that figure has decreased to just 11 births. Quite a significant change.

I am of the baby boom generation – a group of close to nine million Canadians born between 1946 and 1964. Over our lifetimes, we have driven the economy and shaped economic forces such as interest rates, the markets, housing and labour patterns. We have been fortunate to redefine, by the sheer force of our numbers, each phase of our lives, and in the process we have transformed society.

Canada now has the highest percentage of boomers in its total population – even more than Australia, Britain and the United States. Approximately 15 per cent of Canadian workers are 55 and over and, for the first time, half are over 40 years old. To put this in context, approximately 800 Canadians will retire every day during the next 15 years. And as we approach retirement, it is important to many of us to give back.

In order to give back, it’s important that we boomers in key decision-making positions understand the trends within our industry. Traditionally, the assets of mining companies were thought to be their tangibles, such as trucks and shovels. But today, we know that our people are our most important asset.

In the emerging economies of China, India, Russia and Brazil, the demand for raw materials has grown dramatically, driven primarily by rapid industrialization and economic development. Two developments can help put things in context. The first is that China and India urbanize the equivalent of Canada’s population every year. This means that more than 35 million people leave rural environments for urban settings. Urbanization needs steel, and steel requires our coal.

The second development comes from Russia. The Moscow Times reported in July 2008 that due to rapid economic expansion, $570 billion dollars worth of infrastructure projects are in the works. This is great news for an economy that for over six decades was centrally planned. However, in its rapid transition to a market economy, Russia has become a magnet for illegal workers, whose services it needs to sustain its growth.

Now, let’s refocus on the employment situation in Canada. What can our industry do to remain competitive and attract the most highly trained, experienced and knowledgeable workers? A key starting point is the necessity to embrace change, to courageously accept new realities, to think outside the box and to realize that the status quo is a recipe for failure.

Thirty-five years ago when I entered this industry, very little attention was paid to employees. Today, they are our best ambassadors. As such, at Elk Valley Coal we encourage everyone to communicate openly and transparently, fostering a mentoring environment of trust and an atmosphere free from power struggles, politics or organizational divisions. We have embarked on a path to ensure that our employees and those who want to be part of our team in the future understand that they are our most important asset. They are the leaders of tomorrow and need to fully embrace the vision and mission of the company. Our initiative is called “One Purpose, One Plan, One Team.”

One Purpose signifies creating a meaningful vision that permeates to every employee. In concrete terms, it translates into the capacity to lead and control our own destiny.

One Plan signifies the strength to create an open environment that encourages the flow of ideas and the sharing of knowledge to fulfill our vision.

One Team signifies breaking away from the antiquated notion that good ideas are correlated to hierarchy. We foster a positive and rewarding work environment, giving praise when it is deserved while providing honest, constructive feedback.

These changes are not embraced overnight. But maintaining the status quo is simply not an option. The world is changing and we must adapt to succeed. Significant opportunities await those ready to keep up with the pace of change. At Elk Valley Coal, we are change agents focused on improving the future of our industry.

Boyd Payne is the president and CEO of Elk Valley Coal Corporation.

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