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Australian miners face challenge attracting skills for an automated future

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Australian miners face challenge attracting skills for an automated future

Australia's miners need to boost awareness of its industry to create a sustainable automation-focused workforce, as new data reveals a dramatic fall in key vocational and university enrollments which threaten to exacerbate an existing skills shortage.

First-year enrollments into the mining sector's key vocational and university courses have fallen from 200 in 2014 to less than 30 this year, which Minerals Council of Australia Chair Vanessa Guthrie said reflected an "immediate skills shortage" given the industry needs some 200 graduates each year to sustain its current workforce.

Guthrie told the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies Convention in Perth, Australia, on June 5 that resource companies directly employ about 240,000 people at an average wage of around A$140,000 a year, more than 64% above the average for all industries. However, the perception of their industry is "one that does not care about our people, our communities, our environment or our economy."

Guthrie said the country's miners had taken significant strides to improve its image in recent years, citing recent council research showing 55% of Australians now support the industry, up from 46% in May 2018. Yet there is a "chronic need to engage young Australians as they are choosing their future careers," she said.

"Improving the perception of mining is therefore the first step towards rebuilding a sustainable workforce for our industry," she said — one that will adapt to the dramatic change underway in the fundamental skills and capabilities, processes, roles, and organisational models needed to run an operational mine.

Though Australia's miners spend more on training per employee than most industry sectors, Guthrie questioned whether this was enough.

Automation perceptions

Guthrie cited negative perceptions of industry due to some "popular commentary" suggesting technological tools such as artificial intelligence would cause "mass unemployment."

She disputed this theory citing a EY report which the council commissioned earlier this year on the future of work which found that 77% of jobs in Australian mining will be "enhanced or redesigned" due to technology within the next five years.

Analyzing 25 new mining technologies in use globally, EY found 42% of jobs will remain the same except for additional technology and skills; 35% of jobs will remain "familiar" but will be "redesigned" to make the best of the new technology; and the remaining 23% of jobs might be open to automation.

Alexandra Heath, head of the Reserve Bank of Australia's Economic Analysis Department, also told delegates the same day that mining would become increasingly reliant on IT skills given the increasing electrification of mining equipment and vehicles and robots replacing human miners, particularly in more dangerous environments.

Heath said information technology security specialists will be needed to ensure autonomous systems are safe from outside interference, while software engineers and data scientists will be required to optimize real-time operations.

EY also found that certain skills will become more important like mathematics, digital and data literacy and analysis; and that many jobs, tasks and positions will change under a redesigned workplace.

Guthrie said this is particularly true of some "traditional blue collar jobs," while the "internet of things" and increased real time monitoring of equipment, for example, will require more communications electricians and more metal machinists.

Misconceptions of youth

Student Edge, a member-based organization of Australian high school, vocational and university students, also revealed at the AMEC Convention the results of its 2018 survey showing that students simply had not considered mining as a career due to lack of awareness, not necessarily because of negative perceptions.

AMEC CEO Warren Pearce told S&P Global Market Intelligence on the convention sidelines that while the mining industry has "jumped to the conclusion that there are all these concerns about the sector which we need to address, most of the time it's simply a lack of awareness."

"This means a lot of the things we presumed might be thought about by the younger generation around environmental concerns or the industry's future due to automation or whether particular commodities will continue — aren't at the front of their minds," Pearce said.

However, he said the industry does face a chronic skills shortage which is holding back investments, particularly among experienced drillers needed for exploration.