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
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
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’
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
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.