The mining and metals industry plays a crucial role in the global transition towards clean energy and the achievement of net zero goals. As the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) fades from memory, the sector struggles to maintain current supplies as demand shifts to specialised commodities needed for electric vehicles, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite.

The industry is being pushed to adopt digitisation in pursuit of decarbonisation with the need to extract these vital elements while dealing with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) related concerns including protecting the environment, cutting emissions, and enhancing mining safety and efficiency.

According to GlobalData’s analysis, a trend towards integrating ESG and cutting-edge technology at the forefront of mining innovation has corresponded to an increase in the number of mining labours pertaining to these themes. Roles requiring knowledge of engineering technology and environmental science have taken precedence over other mining vocations since 2019.

The growth of automation and environmental management as major educational fields for mining engineering technologists, as well as technicians, is another change in the labour market. Prior to 2021, automation had not been ranked among the top ten education specialities for mining positions, which suggests a gradual change in the employment priorities of mining companies.

A future of automation

Across the industry, companies are implementing automated technology. Recent reports by GlobalData give examples that include Alrosa, a diamond mining firm, which has implemented automatic wireless monitoring to cut down the need for recurrent site visits. Vale, Komatsu, and Rio Tinto among others have started to introduce autonomous haulage trucks.

ABB’s new eMine FastCharge technology, which enables fully autonomous remote charging for electric cars, is a similar advancement that possibly makes electrification more widely available.

Another recent collaboration between two companies, Delta Drone and GoviEx Uranium, aims to use autonomous drones to build a virtual 3D model of a potential mining site in Niger.

In addition to automation, ESG-related activities frequently work in tandem with emerging technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT) and AI, that hold great potential for transforming the future of mining. This is especially true for significant indicators like increasing worker safety and achieving net-zero emissions on roads.

The need for upskilling

A profoundly new skill set from the workforce of the future is inevitably needed to develop and implement increasingly sophisticated technology in the push towards mining 4.0. According to GlobalData’s analysis, more mining jobs are already beginning to demand greater education levels than they did in the past.

Since 2019, a larger percentage of jobs that were notified needed undergraduate or diploma-level qualifications, while fewer positions required a certificate-level qualification. Over the same time span, graduate qualifications stayed nearly flat.

In order for the mining industry to effectively manage the move to mining 4.0, significant investment is required in upskilling its current workforce and/or hiring greatly skilled personnel, as per a recent analysis by Wikistrat and Idoba.

According to industry analysts, ‘digital capabilities,’ ‘technology skills,’ and ‘communication and critical-thinking skills’ will become all the more important in the future. Besides, they state that cross-industry competition for people with the skills needed by the future of mining makes the task more pressing and difficult.

In terms of training, some organisations are ahead of the curve. Finnish mining firm Normet, which specialises in technology solutions for improving productivity, safety, and sustainability in processes, currently provides in-house training for using its latest technologies as part of its product portfolio. With the use of simulation technology, employees can learn the adoption of best practices right away when utilising their concrete spraying and scaling equipment in tunnels, mine sites, or other scanned settings.

According to an analysis by GlobalData, the mining industry is now seeking to employ individuals with a range of skill sets that include the kinds of attributes highlighted in the research by Idoba and Wikistrat. Communication and administrative skills have been the most significant qualifications for mining jobs since 2019 followed by human resource and payroll applications. Others include computer and analytical skills, as well as office productivity applications.

Why communication skills are trending within mining jobs market

Public perception can be one of the factors contributing to the shift towards communication skills in the mining employment market. According to Teboho Maphakisa, a geomatics expert interviewed for a mining journal article, outdated stereotypes and a relative inadequacy of public awareness about how people from disadvantaged backgrounds can thrive in the sector may discourage younger people from seeing mining as a career.

In 2020, the Responsible Mining Foundation came up with a report which brought attention to what the World Economic Forum called a major ‘trust deficit’ between the general public and mining businesses. Communities around mines and projects have identified a number of problems that need to be fixed in order to address this.

A discrepancy between company ESG pledges and actual behaviour, selective sustainability reporting, and a mismatch between public expectations and mining industry practices were among the major issues. Other issues included a perceived lack of openness as a result of inadequate or non-existent data sharing. The study also emphasised the urgent need for mining firms to address ‘unacceptable risks faced by many communities’ and deal with ‘severe, adverse events’ like worker fatalities and injuries, as well as attacks against human rights advocates.

Technological solutions to address specific ESG issues

An example of how the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to address specific ESG issues has been provided by GlobalData’s thematic study. A smart underground ventilation management system created by Milesight, a Chinese IoT firm, promises to improve worker safety by enabling dynamic monitoring of dangerous gases. Boliden has implemented a similar system at its Aitik copper mine in Sweden courtesy of Ericsson providing a low latency 5G network. Remote sensors can be used to keep track of structural integrity and atmospheric conditions, significantly lowering risk.

Companies like Weir Group, a Scottish multinational engineering corporation, which has agreed to purchase a Canadian mining technology startup called Motion Metrics, are examples of how AI is being used. Leveraging their AI and ‘3D rugged machine vision technology’ would facilitate ‘safety, efficiency, and sustainability’ in mining operations.

Using AI and IoT to develop smart video surveillance and predictive maintenance technologies that can improve safety by lowering the likelihood of accidents are some other use cases. Prior to excavation, companies can discover regions with a high concentration of resources by utilising AI for prospecting. They can also predict explosive bursts using machine learning (ML) to mitigate the environmental effect while optimising efficiency. The combination of AI, ML, and IoT can make future mines greener, smarter, safer, and more cost-effective.

It is believed that for mining to change people’s opinions of the sector, various underlying problems that contribute to the ‘trust deficit’ must be addressed. In order to address the sector’s existing and future skills gap, businesses seeking to recruit and retain highly trained people may need to take a comprehensive approach to these and other challenges.