Skills shortage in mining

Next generation of skilled and talented workers in site gear within mining and minerals
The international mining sector is facing a growing challenge when it comes to attracting and retaining the next generation of skilled and talented workers. What steps should mining and minerals organisations be taking to attract the next generation of talent, and closing the growing skills gap?

Attracting and retaining the next generation of mining and minerals talent

While millions of us are employed in mining globally, almost half of us are also currently aged 45 years or older [v]. The mining, mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector is facing critically low student enrolments in mining and METS-related university and vocational courses, and 59 per cent of students in a recent survey said they ‘know nothing’ about careers in the mining and METS sector.

Why is this happening?

A key reason is the mining’s sector’s reputation as being dated and unsustainable, and lagging with its digital transformation – an issue that needs to be addressed if the sector is to thrive into the future.

‘What we do know about mining is shaped by news headlines, which often highlight the negative socioeconomic impacts and environmental concerns in the industry. So, in general, mining is not a popular topic of conversation among young people,’ writes Rutendo Munatsirei, former co-editor of and a millennial employee, in a LinkedIn article (2019).

“Younger generations have become more interested in purpose-driven work, and hold strong views about many of the environmental issues the industry is struggling to address,” McKenzie, suggests (2021).

The overall skills shortage has, of course, been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has prevented skilled labour from entering the country, as well as moving freely around between states and territories.

“State and international border restrictions have made mining companies more dependent on a smaller pool of local workforces,” notes David Burns, Head of Resources at Accenture [xi].

All of this means mining and minerals organisations are facing challenges when it comes to attracting and retaining the next generation of skilled, talented workers. As a result, mining organisations have been forced to lower their production targets, and the shortage “threatens to complicate the sector’s expansion, just as the clean energy revolution drives greater demand for a range of Australian metals” [xii]

So what can be done?

There are some key steps that organisations can take to address the growing problem of finding and retaining talented and committed young workers:

Focus on ESG performance

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues have become increasingly important the world over, both broadly and in the mining and minerals sector. In fact, in a recent global report, 45 per cent of mining decision-makers said ESG issues represented the biggest risk to the sector today– far greater even than issues relating to Covid-19 [vii].

EY’s most recent report in the sector validates this sentiment, with the majority of mining and minerals executives interviewed between June and September of 2021 saying ESG was their number one risk, followed by decarbonisation and licence to operate [vi].

Increasingly, mining and minerals companies are being called on to improve their ESG capabilities — enhancing their disaster management, improving worker protection and health, and demonstrating greater care to the communities in which they operate.

At the same time, nearly 60 per cent of young people say they are worried or extremely worried about climate change, and 45 per cent say their feelings about the climate affects their daily life [iii].

To attract and retain young people – and in fact, utilise their skills to reverse this trend – mining and minerals organisations need to proactively demonstrate their commitment to ESG. A key part of this is investing in digital tools that enable the organisation to accurately measure – and subsequently reduce – emissions. This will play a key role in overcoming these negative impressions, and ensuring that young, talented people are drawn into establishing and retaining careers in the mining sector.

“Top candidates are looking for organisations that are technologically advanced, diverse and inclusive and committed to modern ESG practices. This is why boards and executive teams must take the lead in developing a clear vision, purpose and values that are being lived inside and outside their organisations so their companies can thrive now and into the future,” says McKenzie (2021).

Invest in digital transformation – part of Industry 4.0

As well as a focus on ESG performance, it’s also becoming critically important that mining and minerals organisation invest in modern and robust digital tools – both to improve their overall operating efficiency and to attract and retain young, technologically astute talent.

Right now, mining and minerals processing firms are under pressure from customers, stakeholders and regulators to be part of what’s known as ‘Industry 4.0’ – or the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – a term that refers to the digital transformation of industries like mining, processing and manufacturing.

As we discuss here, the digital transformation of the mining sector is already well underway, with 99 per cent of mining company decision-makers in a recent survey saying technology and innovation are ‘critical’ to their organisation’s survival [ii].

Despite this, many mining organisations aren’t promoting or celebrating their success in this area, nor letting young people know about the opportunities that exist for them.

“In a society where our social currency is heavily reliant on trends and likes, there is not enough publicity about major technological developments in the industry,” writes Rutendo Munatsirei (2019).

In reality, the potential for digitisation of minerals processing is also enormous. With more automated processes, and data-led insights at their fingertips, mining and minerals organisations can improve decision-making and optimise efficiency. Digitisation can also help organisations achieve their emissions targets and unlock huge financial gains.

The senior technology executive of a major mining firm recently suggested that a digital transformation initiative was set to unlock “hundreds of millions of dollars of untapped value a year” [ix].

However, the lack of talented people is a real obstacle to this digital transformation. A recent report by the International Council of Mining and Metals (2021) suggests that 73 per cent of companies identified skills gaps in the local labour market as the biggest barrier to the adoption of such technology, and that an average of 48 per cent existing employees would require reskilling/upskilling in the next four years to meet the evolving skills required for the tasks they would have to perform.

Digital transformation is an exciting area within our industry, and should be a key drawcard for young, talented workers looking to make an impact.

A 2018 survey of young graduates revealed that while 40 per cent believe jobs in mining are declining, 44 per cent said they would be “very interested” in the automation aspects of a mining career such as robots and self-driving vehicles [x].

The optimisation of minerals processing in particular is highly specialised and requires knowledge of many disciplines, including software engineering, IT architecture and data flows, chemical and process engineering, process design and simulation and communication protocols.

For bright young people with specialised skills, mining and minerals should be seen as a chance to drive positive change.

“The opportunity [of digital transformation] is compelling. [It] could lead to better, safer work, higher-paying jobs and better quality of life. It enables the industry to reimagine work and create inclusive career pathways – bringing more women into the workforce, for example – and to think creatively about how the industry can support and work with mining communities in the skills revolution more broadly,” says a recent article [i].

Provide training and learning opportunities

As well as attracting new workers, it’s also imperative that organisations focus on retraining and developing the skills of their existing workforce.

Of the companies recently surveyed by the International Council of Mining and Metals, 90 per cent said they were likely or highly likely to adopt robots and non-humanoid technology; internet of things (IoT) and connected devices; and big data analytics in the next four years [iv].

As a result, it’s predicted that the average employee’s skillset will change by 40 per cent, and most companies will expect existing employees to pick up skills on the job [iv].

As such, internal learning and development was thought by companies to be where the most (37 per cent) of their future retraining would occur (as opposed to being sourced from external training programs, for example) [i].

To keep employees loyal and retained, providing high-quality, ongoing learning and development opportunities is vital.

“I would argue that for this generation, the mining industry is a gem in itself, waiting to be discovered. There is more than enough room in the industry for millennials to take a seat at the table,” says Rutendo Munatsirei (2019).

Offering quality internships

Metallurgical Systems is committed to improving the sustainability of the industry, and to creating opportunities for young engineers and metallurgists that will keep them excited and optimistic about the future. A key way in which we do this is through our intern program.

We are proud to provide opportunities to the next generation of technical professionals, and have over the years have hosted several paid internships for some high-quality candidates who have gone on to work for us.

For several years now, Metallurgical Systems has offered students the opportunity to receive a paid internship. It raises awareness of the METS sector within up-and-coming employees and works to change the perception of a mining industry career from “old-world” to one filled with technology-driven, entrepreneurial opportunities. 

We aim to showcase all of the great things about our sector by providing our interns with interesting and enjoyable projects, and by giving them the chance to work and learn alongside some of the industry’s best, brightest and most experienced and specialised industry leaders.

Earlier this year, Gabrielle, a talented chemical engineer, completed an internship at Metallurgical Systems while in her second year of a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering at the University of New South Wales.

Gabrielle was involved in producing some in-depth technical modelling, which gave her the chance to leverage what she was learning at university, as well as gain some vital new skills.                                 

“I helped model a concept design for a plant that recovers battery-grade lithium from waste residue generated at another process plant. I also constructed flowsheets using client specifications, and applied chemical and thermodynamic principles to the modelling of units such as autoclaves and heat exchangers,” she says.

“I also learnt how to code and implement logic controllers and, most importantly, how to think critically about building these into simulations to produce effective and efficient models”.

Another important aspect of these internships is exposing interns to some of the actual technology they would end up using if they were to remain in the industry. Digital transformation is accelerating in the mining sector right now, and we want to showcase this for our interns as much as possible. We use some very technologically advanced tools, and it’s important interns are given the opportunity to use these for themselves.

We also very much encourage our interns to use their own practical thinking and to solve problems in a way that makes them curious and keen to learn more.

“My internship was a fantastic learning experience and really rewarding. I learnt an incredible amount from being surrounded by highly experienced engineers who were always willing to answer questions and provide support,” says Gabrielle.

“The team really challenged me to improve my engineering mindset and taught me how to approach problems beyond the scope of anything I’d encountered in university projects.”

Learn more

If you are interested in learning more about the skills shortage in the mining and minerals sector, or about Metallurgical Systems’ internship opportunities, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Metallurgical Systems is committed to improving the sustainability of the industry, and to creating opportunities for young engineers and metallurgists that will keep them excited and optimistic about the future. A key way in which we do this is through our intern program.

Take a look at the article we wrote on attracting and retaining the next generation of mining and minerals talent published in the AusIMM Bulletin.

Learn more about Metallurgical Systems’ internship opportunities


[i] Black and Sandstrom, 2021. ‘7 insights to help the mining industry prepare its workforce for the future’ [online]. Available here

[ii] Gleeson D, 2021. ‘Axora survey reveals mining sector moves towards digital transformation’ [online]. Available here

[iii] Harrabin, 2021. ‘Climate change – young people very worried’ [online]. Available here.

[iv] ICMM, 2021. ‘Future of jobs in mining regions’ [online]. Available here

[v] McKenzie M, 2021. ‘Talent trends shaping the mining industry in 2021’ [online]. Available here

[vi] Mitchell P, 2021. ‘Top 10 business risks and opportunities for mining and metals in 2022’ [online]. Available here.

[vii] Meyers K, 2021. ‘Is the Metals and Mining Industry Evolving on ESG?’ [online]. Available here.

[viii] Munatsirei R, 2019. ‘The Mining Industry: A Millennial’s perspective’ [online]. Available here

[ix] Smith P, 2022.AFR 22 Mar 2022. ‘Newcrest mines data in the cloud for a $100m virtual goldmine’ [online]. Available here.

[x] Youth Insight, 2018. ‘59% of Students Say They Know Nothing About Mining Careers (and More Perception Stats)’ [online]. Available here.

[xi] Zakharia, 2021. ‘Is a mining skills shortage looming?’[online]. Available here.

[xii] Toscano N, 2022. ‘Critical shortage: Miners face talent crunch as metals demand fires up’ [online]. Available here

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