Talent wars – how the mining sector must dig deep for the right candidates

By Josie Shillito
Published: Friday, 08 May 2015

Offering bulging wage packets is no longer going to solve the mining industry's talent shortage, as there simply are not enough skilled people to go around. Mining sector companies will need to engage with their workforce and take responsibility for training if there are to be enough engineers for the next mining boom.

The mining industry is facing a talent shortage, and hiring managers will have to become cannier to attract the right people. According to a study by the Minerals Council of Australia, The Labour Force Outlook in the Australian Minerals Sector, the industry will need an additional 86,000 mining professionals and skilled mine workers by 2020.

Head hunters working the sector say that high salaries will not be enough to attract talented people. Candidates are instead prioritising a clear career path and on-the-job training.

"The mining industry can learn to engage more with its prospective workforce in order to remain competitive and to attract the right people," Janet Bewsey, senior research associate at executive search firm Swann Global, told IM.

Shrinking talent pool

The mining sector is a 'grey-haired’ industry, according to sources familiar with the sector. The median age of the US labour force is 45.7 years of age in mining, compared to 42.3 years in all US industries, according to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014

The data suggests that 49,000, or 21%, of senior mining workers are due to retire by 2019, rising to 120,000, or 52%, by 2019.

"It is these senior professionals who are best positioned to provide the skills, knowledge and 'safe pair of hands’ to lead the sector through this period of turbulence," according to consultancy Ernst & Young’s report Productivity in Labour, Mining & Minerals 2014.

Yet there is no one available to fill the void. In the early 1990s an economic downturn hit much of the world, forcing several major economies including the US, Canada, and Australia into detraction. During this period, mining resources were not required as a global recession bit. 

"There is a short supply of skills [in the mining industry] because for a long period in the 1990s no one was training mining engineers," said Bewsey.

The sector presently lacks senior executives with around 15-20 years’ experience. This skill set is so much in demand that it can command salaries of £90,000 ($138,686*) to £175,000, according to industry insiders who wish to remain anonymous.

The sector is also losing the correct engineering skills. Mineral processing engineering, metallurgy engineering, and pyro-metallurgy engineering are in short supply, according to Dr. Andrew Wetherelt, programme director for undergraduate mining at the University of Exeter in the UK.

"Minerals processing engineering seems to be a less 'sexy’ choice for undergraduates, and as a result, these people are like hens’ teeth to find for this employment sector," he explained to IM.

The University of Exeter’s Camborne School of Mines put its Minerals Engineering MSc course on hold last year after it was unable to attract enough undergraduates. The degree usually needs between 10-12 students per year, but in the academic year 2013/2014 it only had three, according to Wetherelt.

The Camborne School of Mines, part of the University of Exeter, is routinely oversubscribed in every other course apart from minerals engineering. 

For Emin Eyi, the managing director of antimony exploration and production company Tri-Star Resources, the problem is on the job training. 

"Mining companies have been outsourcing everything and when you do that you lose years of knowledge. When you lose in-country employment, you lose training, you lose colleges and you lose research and development (R&D)," Eyi told IM.

The processing and metallurgy skillset directly impacts a mining company’s profit and loss (P&L), explained Bewsey. Skills like beneficiation and flotation make or break how much of the commodity is produced, and experience is essential. "You do need a period of mentoring to learn this skill set properly," said Bewsey.

"However, mining companies do not make it easy for young people to enter into exploration and production (E&P) businesses and these companies are now struggling to find these skill sets."

Wetherelt agrees.

"The mining companies need to sponsor a final year student and convert them into a minerals engineer. Vacation positions are mandatory for our degrees. We are more than happy for mining and minerals companies to contact us and to offer vacation positions," he told IM.

Recruitment drive

Companies need to break the costly pattern of hiring rapidly in an upswing and shedding in a downswing if they want to preserve talent, says Ernst & Young. Offering better technical mentoring and improved career path visibility is a smarter way forwards.

"People don’t want to fly in, fly out, (FIFO) anymore," said Bewsey. "Older miners used to be able to relocate with their families but modern candidates see little of family life."

Retaining candidates is essential, recruiters agree. More flexible working arrangements such as increasing part-time arrangements, reduced hours, and long service leave can distinguish an employer from its rivals. 

According to the Minerals Council of Australia’s 2013 report Geographic Labour Mobility: Submission on the Productivity Commission’s Issues Paper, 97% of the mining sector’s workforce is currently full time.

Mapping talent and investing in staff development is another important strategy, according to the Ernst & Young study. Redeploying staff into product groups where complementary skill sets are used can help reduce talent leakage.

One or two businesses are trialling rotational placements, and making it easier for women in technical companies to develop, but there is considerable room for improvement in the industry as a whole, said Bewsey.

"The industry is concerned that if they train people, they will move on," said Bewsey.

However, the sector has learned that stratospheric salaries and bidding wars are unsustainable ways of attracting people. 

"When companies are hiring permanent staff they are finding it challenging to attract staff away from their existing employers. Candidates need to be convinced that the role is stable before being lured by an attractive salary package," Chris Kent, the regional director for Sydney of recruitment company Hays Resources & Mining, told IM.

"Ultimately we will need lower base salaries and better ways of remunerating against performance," said Bewley.


Mining is experiencing a slump but this will change as the world heads into a so-called 'Knowledge Renaissance’, believes Eyi. 

In 2013, the number of patents filed globally hit 2.35m, counting for more than a quarter of all known patents in force. This is also more than the US patent office processed in the first 50 years of the 20th century, according to Tri-Star Resources’ April 2014 presentation at the Madrid Antimony conference.


Win the talent war – retention strategies

Secure, flexible, working arrangements (e.g. part time, job sharing)

Productivity-based performance incentives

Leveraging technology to minimise the need for fly in, fly out (FIFO)

Mentoring or coaching roles

Personalised support to transition to retirement

Tailored rewards programmes to meet personal requirements

Rotation of people across mine sites within the organisation’s portfolio

Source: Ernst & Young Productivity in Labour: Mining and Metals report 2014

"A large proportion of these patented products will require sophisticated minerals like antimony," said Eyi to IM. "But where are we going to process these things? Where are the engineers?"

In the last big minerals boom in 2009, bottlenecks that highlighted staffing and personnel issues revealed themselves, Eyi told IM. This varies, however, from geography to geography.

In Australia, staffing is easier, said recruiters. Australian companies have been more successful over a longer period of time at offering a great deal more postgraduate development to their employees. As a consequence, employers appreciate someone who has a background working in Australia, said Paloma Ortiz-Lopez, recruitment consultant at consultancy Worldwide.

"Every single person I talk to in my market wants to go to Australia," Ortiz-Lopez added.

In Europe the situation is more acute, as not enough mining takes place for young people to get into the industry, said Bewsey.

However some businesses are recruiting competitively. UK gypsum producer British Gypsum makes a concerted effort to reach out to graduate students, according to Wetherelt. The company, based in Leicestershire, UK, runs open days and accepts placement students to attract the best graduates.

"Many students choose to go overseas but if you engage them properly it can be different," said Wetherelt. "It’s a good time for the UK industrial minerals market because the numerous overseas opportunities are not currently there."

This will change as the innovation boom bites.

Roles in short supply according to the recruiters polled include: mining engineers, mineral processing engineers, metallurgy professionals, pyro-metallurgy professionals, underground electricians, residential geologists, maintenance planners, maintenance supervisors, reliability engineers, rubber liners, geotechnical experts, geomechanical experts and maintenance professionals. 

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