February 2014

HR Outlook

No skills shortage in Canadian mining? Think again

By Ryan Montpellier

It came as a surprise to many Canadian mining employers to read recent national newspaper headlines proclaiming there is no skills shortage in this country. This statement must have been particularly shocking to those human resources personnel who, in some cases, have been trying to fill positions for two or more years.

Sure, the current fluctuations in commodity prices and consequent layoffs have added a layer of complexity in the skills shortage story, but with the current dip aside, the long-term outlook for the industry remains the same, as do the mining sector’s aging demographics. For this and other reasons, it is a mistake to think there is no skills shortage in our sector. A deeper look at the recent reports featured in the media shows that a sector-specific and regional approach is recommended as a way of filling employment gaps. This is a strategy that the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR) has promoted for some time now.

Sweeping statements about shortages across all sectors detract attention away from the trends and very real pressures felt in particular regions. Our research shows the mining industry is experiencing general skills shortages in trades, production, and a few highly specialized engineering and leadership-level positions. For many occupations, lack of industry experience, or an “experience shortage,” compounds the issue, as do competition from other sectors and a mismatch between education, training and industry needs. When economic conditions eventually stabilize and production inevitably ramps up quickly, this situation will worsen.

Industry will need access to reliable data to guide its HR strategies and long-term workforce planning. MiHR’s two-year outlook, which takes the downturn into account, shows modest hiring requirements of 34,500 workers during that period, the bulk of which will be due to retirement. Hiring requirements then steadily increase to 145,000 workers by 2023, a result of employment growth, retiring workers and other attrition like long-term leave, movement to other sectors, emigration and mortality.

Local context is essential if we are to take this data and use it to create HR strategies. The current downturn, for example, is felt in particular regions, not across Canada as a whole. By talking to industry representatives, we know that employers in Eastern and Central Canada are generally able to fill vacancies from within the local area, province or region. However, in Western Canada and in the North, there tends to be more competition for certain specialized roles, and employers will hire commuters from all over Canada to fill these positions.

From a recent research project we conducted in six northern Ontario regions, we found that each region had different needs, demonstrating that even a provincial strategy may be too general in some cases. For example, the Sudbury region is a well-established mining community that supports a large number of mining-extraction and support-services employers, whereas the Kenora region places emphasis on mineral exploration and advanced development. Given their unique situations, both regions face different hiring challenges over the next decade.

But there are some more basic factors behind these vacancies too, like the reluctance of potential workers to live in a particular area or to work underground. These are not problems with simple fixes. Educational and training institutions, government and employers all need to do their part by aligning education with the needs of industry. Key examples include making significant investments in training, apprenticeships and in-house training, continuing efforts in workforce diversification, and working with aboriginal com­­­munities where possible to bolster a local workforce and raise awareness of careers in rural areas of Canada. We must also make an effort to ensure we are basing investment and training decisions on reliable data, and assuring that the skills shortage is accurately understood for what it is. All it takes is a cursory look at the comment boards below the recent skills shortage articles to show that we have to do a better job of communicating our industry’s specific needs to the general public.

In cases of very specialized and hard-to-fill positions, employers may have to turn to immigration and temporary foreign worker (TFW) programs. In our consultations, employers have clearly stated that they prefer to hire locally, and when that is not possible, from elsewhere in Canada. Going through the TFW process is costly and time consuming and should be a last resort.

We cannot sit back and relax now or in the foreseeable future, or afford to take a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing the pending skills crunch. We are in it together.

Ryan Montpellier is the executive director of MiHR. He is a recognized expert and sought-after speaker on HR issues impacting the Canadian mining sector today.

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