Mining Education 2.0 – Time for Change – The Intelligent Miner

With nearly 50% of skilled engineers reaching retirement age in…

With nearly 50% of skilled engineers reaching retirement age in the next decade and many jobs likely to be reshaped by technology over the same period, the mining industry is facing an unprecedented challenge: finding enough skilled people to lead and implement the transformation of the mining sector. 

According to data from the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), Canada alone will need to hire 80,000 to 120,000 workers by 2030 just to meet demand. The situation in the U.S., Australia and South America paints a similar picture (see figure 1).

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Figure 1. Source: MIHR, “Interactive Labour Market Dashboard”, Mining Industry Human Resources Council, Deloitte, 2023

The felt reality of the talent squeeze in mining

“The talent squeeze is already tangible all over the world in mining, but once that retirement wave hits, that’s when we are really going to feel the gap in the pipeline,” Ben Lepley, a British geoscientist and Mining ESG Consultant at SLR Consulting with a passion for educational outreach, agreed.

“The gap is widening on both ends, because fewer young people are considering a degree in engineering or earth sciences. Part of the problem is a lack of awareness for these subjects and the importance of mining globally among teachers specifically, and, consequently, among pupils as well.”

Prof. John Steen, Director of the Bradshaw Research Institute in Minerals and Mining (BRIMM) at The University of British Columbia (UBC), concurred: “We hear people on the verge of retirement say that when they graduated, the numbers were much larger than they are now. 

“The pipeline of graduates is shrinking in mining and geology degrees, so much so that some companies are now struggling to find the right people to bring mining projects onstream. Everyone knows there is a crisis, but we don’t behave like there is a crisis.” 

When asked why the situation has become so dire, Steen was certain that a big part of the problem is that the value of a mining degree isn’t conveyed to young people successfully by universities and the mining industry. 

Ben Lepley is a geoscientist and Mining ESG Consultant at SLR Consulting

“Mining pays the highest salaries outside of medicine, and it’s a profession that will take you all around the world, providing a challenging and stimulating career opportunity and yet we don’t seem to get that message across very well,” he explained. 

To change that, the mining industry and educational institutions must do better in explaining to the public and young minds (and in particular to Gen Z) why mining is essential for combating climate change, and the important role it plays in realising the global energy transition.  

It’s evident that more needs to be done, and it must be done collectively and collaboratively. To this end, Lepley and Steen are both ambassadors for change, with a considerable impact when it comes to mining education. 

Whereas Lepley focuses on school-age children to raise awareness and excitement for geosciences, Steen has developed mining-related micro-credential programs out of UBC to broaden access to mining education and provide opportunities for professionals within and outside the industry. 

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Prof. John Steen is Director of the Bradshaw Research Institute in Minerals and Mining (BRIMM) at the University of British Columbia

Affecting change: Raising awareness among teachers and secondary school children 

“Getting into schools with real shiny minerals and physical objects, such as mobile phones, to give schoolkids a hands-on physical experience makes a big difference,” said Lepley, speaking to his own experiences of geoscience-related outreach within schools and other education institutions, such as the Scouts in the UK. 

He is also working in collaboration with the UK Geological Society to create educational outreach materials. Since children tend to make decisions on their future interests rather early in life, Lepley focuses on students aged 8 to 12, when the curriculum still allows for some flexibility. 

“I love the moments when their faces light up when they see a rock with real gold in it, or they find out that a piece of copper they’re holding is a whopping 2 billion years old!” he said.  

“And when we talk about games like Minecraft, they start to understand mining and why we need it. Leveraging kids’ interests and linking them back to the real world sparks their curiosity.” 

In addition to making a lasting impression on the pupils, Lepley’s work is also intended to get into teacher’s minds, who usually acknowledge his lectures with “I didn’t know any of that.” 

While educating schoolteachers and young pupils is an important lever, there are other great programs and resources available, also for children who do not attend schools, for instance, STEM Ambassadors and Minerals Matter

The Briefcase of mineral applications game, which was developed by EIT RawMaterials, is another very relevant tool that’s available in several languages, and informs in a playful way about the connection between products and the materials and minerals required for their production. 

Digital technologies and teleconferencing tools mean that, today, students from around the world can come together remotely to learn. Here students and lecturers meet on Zoom as part of the BRIMM Executive Microcertificate in Economic Leadership class for mining professionals. Image: BRIMM

Innovations in university education: flexible, accessible, and affordable 

At the university level, Steen has worked ambitiously, together with industry, to lower the barriers to mining-related education. 

“We need to be much more innovative in how we package mining education to make it accessible and affordable,” he said. “Micro-credentials are a great way to deliver smaller packages of education that are easier to access, afford, and accommodate even for professionals in other fields.” 

BRIMM at UBC has seen a great uptake of micro-credentials within the industry since the inception of its first courses in 2020. During the pandemic, when many people were furloughed or out of employment, the first online course in economic leadership in mining was designed as an upskilling opportunity that turned out to be in high demand. 

Over the past four years, more than 1000 learners, with a 50:50 gender ratio (!), have earned a micro-certificate, which comprises about 50 hours of lecture and study material. Building on this success and based on industry needs communicated through the industry advisory group, a second program on sustainable mine closure, co-developed with EY and Rio Tinto, was recently launched. 

“We’re seeing a lot of people from inside the industry updating their skills, but also people from outside of mining taking these courses, such as from government and First Nations, who wish to understand more about the industry,” Steen explained. 

In addition, there’s also a skills transfer into the industry taking place with people who come from different backgrounds, which is very encouraging.” 

Shifting roles and responsibilities: Skills requirements for future talent

However, it seems the complexity of the talent gap and the requirements of future education further increases when we consider the fact that the digital and automation transformation is creating new roles

Professionals in these new roles are tasked with very different responsibilities compared to traditional mining engineers, such as managing complex processes at remote operation centers. Other emerging roles include master schedulers, team performance scientists, and data scientists, for example. 

Steen observed: “What we’re hearing from the industry is that, today, companies take technical skills as a given, but now also request additional skills. These include knowledge about emerging technologies, AI and what it means for mining, and skills such as collaboration, leadership, critical thinking, communication… the list goes on and on. 

“A traditional four-year degree cannot cover that, even though the list of what students are supposed to learn within four years is getting bigger and bigger. We already struggle to put everything we technically need to into four years,” he said pointedly.  

What this really means is that training in mining engineering is becoming a lifelong process. This is, again, calling out for continuous learning opportunities, like micro-credentialing. 

Steen sees a big opportunity for universities to get involved if they collaborate with the industry in providing programs targeted towards lifelong learning. To date, professional development is usually provided by mining companies in the form of in-house training that’s done with consultants.

Moreover, achieving climate goals and meeting stakeholder demands around ESG and community engagement require professionals with a skillset that’s typically not taught in traditional mining-related educational programs. 

“We’re facing a big backlash against the mining industry by environmentalists and others, who sometimes get very emotional,” Lepley agreed. “The ability to understand and empathise with other people’s viewpoints, and communicate effectively with various groups, is critical for the mining industry to move forward on various fronts and ensure societal acceptance.” 

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Bringing minerals and metals, as well as the products they’re used in, to careers fairs like this one in London, UK, helps provide people with a tangible connection to the mining industry and why it’s necessary. Image: Ben Lepley

The foundations for lifelong learning: curiosity, flexibility, adaptability

Lifelong learning on and off the job seems inevitable in the face of fast-changing work environments and technological advancements. This change requires curiosity, flexibility, adaptability, and the willingness to continuously learn and develop. 

“We need flexible people who are good at learning, inquisitive, creative and open,” said Lepley. “But how do you learn and remain curious about learning? By having the time and space to dive in and discover what you really enjoy.” 

However, this is not what’s happening in the school system today, and this is leaving Lepley concerned. “The reality is that the way kids are being taught in the UK today was designed some 150 years ago, and barely anything has changed since then, even though there has never been a study (to my knowledge) proving that the way we teach children is effective,” he explained.  

“For example, schoolchildren aren’t offered much incentive to collaborate. Quite the opposite – this is called cheating. We feel the need to rank and grade children based on how they perform, and we end up fostering competition rather than collaboration.”

In his courses, Steen is very conscious of designing assessments with aspects of leadership, communication, and teamwork in mind. “For example, I teach a course in innovation and business strategy, and in this course a major piece of assessment is a scenario-based exercise that the students need to record and then present,” he explained. 

By designing the learning experience and assessment in a smart way, it’s possible to encourage the development of important soft skills. 

Future visions: agile education and apprenticeship programs 

The future Steen envisages is one where universities open up to more agile forms of (online) education. For instance, through offering modules that are accessible and affordable for professionals, and which offer continuous learning opportunities for a broad range of people, especially those who live in lower income countries, and/or may not have the means to afford a full degree in Canada or the US. 

“Not giving these people opportunities to educate themselves and enter the industry means we are missing out on a huge number of people who are ambitious to learn,” said Steen. 

It’s therefore very encouraging that the Canadian government is supporting BRIMM to provide scholarships for micro-credential-based education in Chile and Argentina. 

In the future, Steen would like to see the industry sponsoring scholarships for continuous learning, such as remote micro-credentials, as an important avenue for making education more accessible and affordable. 

Lepley added that another great way to make earth science, geology, and mining-related degrees more accessible and affordable are apprenticeship-based programs. These typically comprise around 60% paid work at a company and 40% study at a university towards a degree. 

“Students get paid while studying and they can learn relevant skills on the job simultaneously, which would make this type of degree much more accessible,” said Lepley, adding that, in his future vision, companies and universities would collaborate to offer this type of opportunity for different mining-related degrees.

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Demonstrating which metals come from where. Image: Ben Lepley

Looking Ahead: Navigating the Future of Mining Education

What is becoming very clear is that there is an urgent need to address the talent gap by reimagining educational approaches. 

Rethinking education to embrace continuous learning opportunities and make education more agile, accessible, and affordable as part of a lifelong learning endeavor seems crucial if the industry wants to attract both young and experienced professionals.  

As the mining sector aligns itself with the principles of sustainability, technology, and societal engagement, the journey towards a more resilient and dynamic industry begins with a reimagined approach to education. 

And it was inspiring to learn from Lepley and Steen where to start and how to begin! 

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