Upskilling needs careful thought amid rapid tech adoption in mining industry
Mining News Pro - Despite the negative impacts that Covid-19 has brought to the world, it has also had positive impacts, such as the acceleration of Fourth Industrial Revolution- (4IR-) type technology adoption, particularly in the mining industry.
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During a panel discussion on the first day of the Investing in African Mining Indaba, hosted virtually on February 2 and 3, German automation company Siemens Southern & Eastern Africa CEO Sabine Dall’Omo said that, in 2019, the industry would have still discussed digitalisation, while in 2020 the industry had adopted and applied digital technology.

She explained that because executives could not travel, communication and managing operations had to be done remotely as far as possible, which required creative solutions and applying all available technology.

In addition to mining companies having to adapt its working manner, they have also had to introduce new technologies to advance health and safety risk mitigation in the workplace – for example with screening, testing and treating facilities for Covid-19.

For diversified miner Exxaro Resources, Covid-19 has led it to enhance its supply chain using digital technology and include more local, small companies and entrepreneurs.

The company has brought more small companies and entrepreneurs on board, equipped them to be digitally ready, and many of whom have since become contractors for the mines or elsewhere part of its ecosystem.

Exxaro also stepped up on its mass communication capability to reach its workforce and the wider community.

Exxaro Minerals MD Dr Nombasa Tsengwa said the mining industry has, for some time, been pushed to look at more ways of driving down costs and improving efficiencies, not only owing to Covid-19, but also the need to extract lower-grade ore with more precision, as well as volatile commodity market conditions.

“There is more catching up to do, but the industry has made some major strides. For example, global miner Rio Tinto using automatous trucks, or Exxaro which has simplified its mining operations by creating visualised operations, as well as automating the value chain end-to-end.”

For Gold Fields, executive VP Alfred Baku said Covid-19 prompted the company to accelerate its technology adoption to track its supply chain activities and get a hold of backup suppliers for certain products.

He said many more small and larger mining companies would have closed down during the pandemic if it were not for technology that enabled remote working and communication.

From an association perspective, International Council on Mining and Metals social and economic development programme director Nicky Black said she had seen mining companies embrace technology to de-densify the workforce, communicate with its communities around addressing medical needs, and build testing facilities.

“We have seen the use of logistics and tracking systems for the transportation of medical equipment. We have also seen mining companies using technology to conduct its stakeholder engagement and approval processes.

“Mining companies have stepped up to deliver those responses and provided targeted support to its stakeholders, while deepening its engagement processes. We have seen mining companies share their approaches and solutions, which now serves as a practical guide for other mining companies around the world.”

SKILLS FOR THE FUTURE
Although Covid-19 has brought 4IR forward for many companies around the world, there are still barriers that exist to widespread adoption of automation, Internet of Things, robotics and big data.

Dall’Omo noted that Siemens envisioned a mining industry with fewer workers and more machines underground to make it more efficient and effective for profitability and competitiveness, as well as protecting the environment.

“With underground mines, operators are now able to simulate the process of extracting the ore and see if it is viable to extract it at a certain point in time, depending on market prices. These types of data correlations will become more commonplace.

“Decisions will become more data-based. That creates new jobs, which we currently do not have. Technology will also improve safety, because simulators can predict what can go wrong during a particular simulated scenario,” she adds.

However, the panel all echoed the same sentiment, that there is currently a lack of skills available to be absorbed in the mining environment. The mining industry has thousands of low-skilled workers who would need to be re-skilled or upskilled in order to preserve jobs.

Responding to a panel question of how one goes about upskilling the workforce, Tsengwa said a company’s approach to upskilling has to be thought through carefully since it has a bearing on the welfare of the workforce.

“Since you are bound to get resistance, it is vital to be clear on your approach, starting by communicating the benefits of automation to the operation and the broader community. Many companies have erred by re-imagining the workplace on their own without including input from labour.

“In South Africa, with its level of inequality and unemployment, it is particularly vital to handle this disruption responsibly.”

She further suggested that companies on this journey map out what technologies will be introduced first, and identify what skills will be necessary and to what extent the workforce can be skilled for it internally.

Tsengwa pointed out that the speech at which mining companies adopt new technology is limited by the realities of the country, and responsible leadership choices are essential.

Baku also envisions a "man-less" mining operation in future, but said it would vary from mine to mine, and from country to country.

“At Gold fields, we believe that zero harm is a possibility, particularly through automation. Some operations are quite sensitive to cost, especially with low-grade operations, and without using technology, reserves are cut down and mine lives are shortened.”

Black cited data from its “Skills for our Common Future” initiative, as well as surveys done by World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Minerals Council South Africa, stating that most leaders in the mining sector expect the nature of the mining workforce to change significantly in the next five years.

Nearly 95% of South African executives expect a transition to more skilled employees in the next five years, while they concur that unskilled workers will be the most impacted by these changes.

WEF expects that more jobs will be created than lost. “While 85-million jobs could be displaced by 2035, 97-million new jobs will have emerged,” Black said.

She added that, indeed, most of the workforce will need to be reskilled, but those members of the community are also partaking in other industries that are transforming equally.

“We need to work together to understand at scale where opportunities lie for reskilling and managing disruption,” Black highlighted.


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