EXPERT OPINION - JSE MAGAZINE

EXPERT OPINION

An extensive programme that addresses the skills shortage is required to ensure the future of SA’s mining industry

EXPERT OPINION

It’s a well-recognised fact that SA’s mining industry competes for engineering skills with other sectors. In both the national economy and the global mining industry, SA’s mining sector faces considerable competition in terms of engineering skills.

According to the Mining Qualification Authority (MQA), the US and Australia see 75% and 80% respectively of mining engineering graduates join the industry. SA is on par with the US – however, only 15% of mining engineers actually remain in the industry long term.

Further worsening the situation is the fact that SA continuously loses general and mining engineering skills to countries such as Australia and Canada. Even though the country produces significantly more mining engineers than other English-speaking nations, the MQA says the supply pipeline is too small and the output insufficient to counter international losses while simultaneously replacing the ageing engineering and artisan population.

The consequences of a skills shortage are vast and varied. Some of the more major effects include the inability to develop new projects; activities falling behind schedule and going over budget; a decline in profitability and productivity; and increased strain on the existing workforce.

Furthermore, a lack of appropriate and adequate skills negatively affects safety – an issue that’s of particular importance in the mining sector.

Declan Vogt is the director of the Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems (CMMS) at Wits University, which forms a part of the faculty of engineering and the built environment. He says SA’s mining industry faces a skills shortage from basic worker level through to top management, and everything in between.

‘In the mining industry, many of the professionals have certificates, and you can’t practice in these disciplines without that certificate. All of those are critically short. I’ve heard of new prospects that couldn’t be turned into mines because they couldn’t pull together enough people with the right skills at the technical level.’

However, perhaps a worse conundrum, according to Vogt, is that SA now also lacks the skilled trainers necessary to offer the education needed to build the industry’s skills. In previous years, most mines ran their own training facilities. Today, very few do.

To make matters worse, many further education and training colleges have stopped operating. Fortunately, mining houses have since reinstated skills programmes and training initiatives. ‘They understand that because they have not been training, they cannot guarantee they will have the people they need, and have thus realised it’s time to start training again. I think there’s a collective responsibility in all of this,’ Vogt says. ‘South Africa has ambitions to turn out 36 000 artisans a year but currently we are only producing 12 000.’

According to Vogt, the local mining industry is not as productive as those of other countries – and skills training forms an important part of this.

Expert Infographic

SA’s mining industry faces a skills shortage, from basic worker level through to top management

Firmly pro-mechanisation, Vogt believes that increased mechanisation will lead to a greater level of professionalism. It requires new and different training, and he says that artisans are in short supply here.

For instance, where traditionally mines would have had a diesel mechanic working on their equipment, mechanisation entails that this person now also works with electronics and hydraulics, requiring a new skill set.

Vogt is optimistic that SA’s mining problems can be remedied in time. ‘The mining industry has difficulty attracting people even at mineworker level,’ he says. ‘Mining is physical work but as it becomes more mechanised, people will see it as more interesting and technological, less physically demanding and more mentally challenging. I think it will become more attractive.’

Peter Major heads the mining resource division at Cadiz Corporate Solutions. He agrees the mining industry’s skills shortage is of serious concern. He argues that ‘the government has a responsibility to create, maintain and assist a climate that leads to job creation’, and nothing leads better to job creation than economics, he says.

He fears SA is discouraging foreign investment with its surplus policies and legislation. And while he is concerned with the standard of existing institutions, he is adamant that the country needs more training facilities to upskill and better equip the industry’s workforce.

‘During the early ’80s, we had something like 140 mining training colleges; the mines all had two or three. Training was the name of the game; it was how you got productivity out. Now government has created these things called SETAs [sector education and training authorities] which are supposed to be training centres,’ says Major. ‘You didn’t need that in the ’70s and ’80s because the mines supplied all the training colleges. So it didn’t cost the public a cent and it was much more efficient. It was good, on-the-job training and the mines would utilise the people they trained there.’

According to the Chamber of Mines, there will always be challenges in developing the skills and education needed for mining jobs in SA because of the dynamic nature of the labour market – in particular, the mining industry.

The sector still employs a large number of people who are functionally illiterate, which poses yet another problem. The chamber reasons that the economy’s growth potential means that there will always be a demand for skills, as evidenced by the current shortage of artisans critical to the industry.

The challenge, it says, remains the promotion of collaborative efforts by business as a whole to create a bigger pool of qualified artisans for absorption into the labour market.

Expert Pull Quote

‘The government has a responsibility to create, maintain and assist a climate that leads to job creation’

PETER MAJOR, HEAD OF MINING RESOURCES, CADIZ CORPORATE SOLUTIONS

Speaking at the Joburg Indaba on investing in mining and resources in October 2014, Minister of Mineral Resources Ngoako Ramatlhodi announced that his department will develop the skills of young people and mineworkers to address the needs of the evolving mining industry.

‘Given the demand for skills in the area of mining, both locally and globally, the need to expand the pool of skills to supply the industry has also become more critical,’ Ramatlhodi said.

According to the minister, the department was enhancing collaboration with the Department of Higher Education and Training, together with other stakeholders, through the MQA, to improve skills development of the youth and mineworkers.

The idea is to place bursary holders, interns and students at various universities and mining companies for training in critical skills, the minister further noted. He added that government would continue to prioritise opportunities and encourage investment to help grow the economy.

Gold Fields’ South Deep mine holds the world’s second-largest gold ore body. Since April 2007, when the company first acquired full control, Gold Fields has transformed it into one of the world’s leading deep-level mechanised mining operations.

While mechanised mining is a relatively new concept in SA, South Deep has made significant progress in implementing the required developments and systems. Forming a crucial part of this development is the upskilling of mineworkers and engineers.

The mine spent some R50 million on a high-tech mechanised training facility that includes simulation centres. It opened in December 2012 and has the capacity to accommodate 60 learners at any one time across its four lecture rooms and large engineering workshop. The mine holds classroom and similar training to allow operators to familiarise themselves with the equipment before going underground.

Miners from the company’s Australian operations, where mechanised mining has been the norm for decades, are currently stationed in SA, imparting their skills and knowledge in a bid to accelerate the training of local teams.

Expert info2

As a registered SETA, the MQA and is responsible for the administration of skills-development programmes for SA’s mining and minerals sector. In accordance with the National Skills Development Strategy, its most recent plan – the Sector Skills Plan for the Mining and Minerals Sector 2015–2020 – states that in the mining sector, replacement demand far exceeds new demand.

According to the MQA, it is essential that the sector trains relatively large numbers of people in order to replace workers who leave the sector, as well as to contain skills shortages.

Since its inception, the MQA has intentionally intervened to help alleviate skills shortages in the mining and minerals sector.

Apart from bursaries and grants, the MQA has ensured that the necessary qualifications as well as learnerships were registered. What’s more, it has accredited providers; supports the training as well as registration of assessors and moderators; is responsible for verifying assessments; and awards qualifications.

Skills programmes are another very important offering, which gives workers (especially those at lower educational levels) the opportunity to obtain recognition for some of the skills attained in the workplace.

According to the MQA, the number of new graduates in fields of study relevant to the mining and minerals sector grew substantially between 1999 and 2013. Vogt affirms this, saying that graduate numbers have tripled over the last 10 years. ‘Student numbers have increased significantly,’ he says. ‘The school has had to increase its entry requirements to level off the size of the course.’ Interestingly, Wits boasts the largest English-speaking mining school in the world.

Although it is acknowledged that the industry is facing a skills headwind, the consensus seems to be that if organisations, companies and institutions do what they can to educate all mineworkers as far as possible, the benefits will soon be apparent.

By Toni Muir
Image: Fredrik Broden/reneerhyner.com