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Mining skills not keeping up with technology

No room for unskilled labour in Nick Holland’s gold mine of the future.

Mining education is not keeping up with technology, says professor Fred Cawood, director of the Wits School of Mining Engineering. He was responding to Moneyweb questions relating to Gold Fields’ CEO Nick Holland’s suggestion that in the mine of the future mechanisation was not only necessary for the industry’s survival, but inevitable.

This, Holland said, was particularly true for the gold sector, where the total contribution to geological inflation is driving double-digit cost inflation, and the average grade of gold mined has fallen by 3% per annum, since the year 2000.

Over the last year, clashes with local communities have risen 22% every year, and government continues to expect more from mining operations. Depressed commodity prices and shrinking margins, are forcing miners to cut their exploration spend as well, which further dampens prospects for the future.

“For the industry to survive, productivity is going to have to be the order of the day and mines can no longer rely on the gold price increasing,” said Holland, speaking recently at the Gordon Institute of Business Science on what the gold mine of the future would be. “Conventional mining is going to disappear over time.”

Drones that fly above mines to capture imagery and data in real-time, artificial intelligence robotics and remote-controlled machinery will also feature heavily in mines of the future.

This, Holland said, would see digital mining and big data introduced into the value chain, with advanced analytics and new software technologies used to deliver productivity and throughput increase with the same resources. Companies are going to have to be flexible and be able to mine on demand, so as to produce less in periods of a downturn. To some extent the technology is already available.

“You’re going to have enough information in real-time to be able to know what’s happening right now, throughout the whole mining value chain. You’re going to see more collaboration with OEMs, which are increasingly manufacturing more mechanised products and remotely operated equipment.” He said this referring to Rio Tinto which, last month unveiled the world’s first remotely-operated trucks.

“The trucks run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without a driver. So, if you didn’t think it would happen… it’s already happening.”

This means the control room is going to be the focal point in any mine operation and, as such, mineworkers are going to have to be very different.

“The skills we need will be vastly different and will require partnership with governments, universities and training colleges to redefine curricula. We will employ far fewer people and will need to find a new model to provide benefits to communities,” said Holland.

“We will have to adapt our human resources. Operators are going to be operating automated machinery probably remotely. And they’re going to have to be trained. Gone are the days when you’re going to have 3 000 people in corporate offices.”

Skills are not there

But according to Cawood, South Africa is far from being ready for this because the skill set for the mines of the future haven’t even been defined yet. Mining engineering programmes currently focus more on the software-application side. But in the future they will be about developing the software that will allow machinery to communicate with each other.

“So we need to change the curriculum, but the industry must first give us guidance on where they’re heading,” Cawood says. “But there are also bigger issues than this one. The mines will first have to come to an understanding with the unions given the significant job losses that there are going to be. What do we do with the people losing their jobs?”

This much bigger challenge arises because of the sheer number of unskilled and poorly educated people working in the mining industry, who are significantly protected by trade unions.

“I don’t think we’re going to get it right in terms of upskilling. Maybe if we’re talking about people who have passed grade 12, there is a chance, because they would have (NQF) level 4 education. But what about those people with level one?”

For less educated people, Cawood said it would be impossible to get them to the level of education required to learn the skills that future mines will require. For these people, he said it would be more a case of reskilling. That is, trying to match the skills they have in their roles with those needed in other sectors of the economy.

“If the skill-set required for rock-drilling had some similarities to plumbing, for example, that person could be helped to make the transition to becoming a plumber.

“Also, if the machinery for mechanised mines of the future was built in South Africa, we could develop a secondary industry, and those jobs could be transferred from the mining industry to the manufacturing sector.”

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