Skills shortage at the coalface

The mining sector in South Africa faces a myriad of challenges–chief among them, the lack of an effective skills development programme

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The mining sector in South Africa faces a myriad of challenges–chief among them, the lack of an effective skills development programme. The shortage of trained personnel in this sector is rooted in the legacy of a poor basic education system which has resulted in many employees having little capacity to acquire modern skills.
According to the Minerals Council South Africa (MCSA), the national shortage of skills in the mining sector highlights the challenges associated with finding and retaining qualified staff and increases the demands for training and development in this key sector of the economy.

There are still several occupations within the mining sector that are difficult to source labour for. The 2017/18 iteration of the Sector Skills Plan (SSP) has noted that occupations such as mining manager, mining planner, mining engineer and rock engineer, among others, are positions that are still very difficult to fill. There have also been considerable fluctuations, and in some cases a decline, in terms of the numbers of qualified personnel coming out of training programmes. Data from the Mining Qualifications Authority (MQA) indicates fewer certificates being issued for occupations such as advanced mine surveying and advanced mine valuations.

Meeting scarce skills

One of the key drivers for the skills shortages is the lack of sufficient experience at senior levels of mine management within the sector as well as the undesirable geographic locations of mines in SA, driving up salary requirements for these positions. One of the reasons for the lack of experienced mine managers, engineers and planners is the current economic recession in South Africa which has resulted in a high number of skilled and experienced people immigrating to other jurisdictions. The mining industry has increased its investment in bursary programmes and graduate development to address these skills needs, however, the programmes will not alleviate the skills shortages at management levels in the short term.

There is also the problem of diesel mechanics, fitters, boilermakers and instrument mechanics not having sufficient knowledge and experience in updated technologies, as well as adequate STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills for the modernised mine environment. The mining industry and government need to focus on the development of bridging programmes through which working adults can be introduced to STEM skills to ensure that their skills remain relevant in the working environment of the future.

New, sophisticated technologies are transforming the sector’s operations. As a result, the type, level and mix of skills required are changing, affecting occupations such as rock drill operator, blaster, drill rig operator as well as most of the artisan trades. Upskilling and reskilling programmes are needed so that employees are trained in new mining processes that will extend the lifespans of mines.

Upskilling and training will be required for all skills levels of workers, including managers and supervisors, to ensure a smooth transition to mechanisation. A focus on AET (adult education and training) programmes up to level 4, as a way of improving literacy and numeracy levels, will be important to prepare existing and potential employees to operate new machinery and coordinate new processes.

Measures to meet changing needs

Training in mine safety is another key concern in South Africa as ore is buried deep underground which proves increasingly dangerous for direct human extraction. Modernisation of the industry needs to also permeate into downstream activities with greater value-addition being drawn from mining, however, a core challenge that remains is inadequate access to infrastructure such as water and electricity in semi-urban and rural communities. The various investments being dedicated towards skills development should also be directed at primary school level where the foundation needs to be strongest, says the MCSA. Coupling this with the introduction of new technologies at schools will also be vital to instil a strong technologically driven mindset that can then translate into actionable change and meaningful contributions in later years.

Global trends

At the moment all the major global mining companies are taking stock of what’s going to be needed in the coming decade and beyond. The impact of digitalisation within mining is going to be far-reaching, and unless mining companies evolve out of their current models, they won’t survive. A look at other major mining markets like Australia, Brazil, Canada and Chile, shows all are making headway towards investing for the future. The skills needed going forward are changing rapidly, from self-driving trucks to enhanced drilling technologies, and labour needs to match these needs to maintain industry competitiveness. South Africa is behind in terms of innovating towards skills development, with pressure coming from the government to transform and diversify the industry, particularly at senior management level.

Mining in SA continues to be labour-intensive in comparison to other major mining markets and according to the latest available mining figures from the MCSA, there are over 460 000 people employed by the mining sector. In comparison, Australia employs less than half that number of people as does Canada. What’s interesting to note in these two comparisons is that if you take into account the downstream value-added in the mining sector in both countries, it is considerably larger than SA’s.

Employment of unskilled labour

Contrary to the expectation that it would move towards employing a higher number of skilled personnel to catalyse modernisation and mechanisation targets, the South African mining industry has backtracked, employing a significant number of unskilled personnel instead. This is according to a report compiled by Africa-focused research and analysis organisation, InOn Africa and human resource advisory firm Managing Transformation Solutions (MTS) Holdings.

The Mining Trends Report 2018 which was released recently highlights the effectiveness of education and training in the local mining sector. The sample analysed more than 12 000 people from more than 45 mining and core contractor companies.

A general decline in the local mining industry has been blamed on the slow adoption of mechanised mining methods and the reluctance to extensively modernise operations using technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and remote control.

Lack of preparation for Industry 4.0

The move away from upskilling mining personnel and relying instead on a greater number of unskilled and low-skilled personnel contrasts with a global call for greater emphasis on upskilling workforces as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, gains traction. A major component of Industry 4.0 involves mechanisation, modernisation and digitalisation, with machines and AI the driving force behind highly efficient and safer methods for industry, mining, processing and manufacturing.

Any form of modernisation would require a larger number of mining personnel to be highly skilled to operate and maintain intelligent machinery, which, in turn, will likely be deployed in deeper, hotter and more unsafe depths to find previously unattainable ore bodies.

With a paradigm shift in terms of how operations are conducted comes a shift in how personnel work and are trained. MCSA skills development head Mustak Ally points out that, previously, the basic requirements for entering the mining industry were “gross motor skills”, but what is required currently is well developed fine motor skills.

However, he also points out that it might prove difficult to teach some of the older generations of miners fine motor skills, which could be done through, for instance, playing video games.

Many commentators in the mining industry have emphasised that it stands to benefit much from mechanisation and modernisation, with machines taking over dangerous tasks and removing people from labour-intensive and unsafe conditions. This would go a long way towards improving safety for miners and mitigating the high number of injuries and workplace-induced illnesses.

The report states that a greater number of people who have a higher degree of knowledge and skills would need to enter the industry to catalyse a new wave of industrial growth, which would seemingly also require the mining industry to follow suit in terms of employing such people and upskilling existing personnel to ensure a new prosperous, more efficient and safer local mining industry. 

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