A large segment of the mining industry’s workforce is in danger of being left behind by new, high-tech changes in the field.
That’s one of the findings in Balancing the Potential Impact of New Innovations and Technologies, a recent report by Workforce Planning for Sudbury & Manitoulin and the Labour Market Group in North Bay.
According to the paper, changes in the sector are forcing Northern Ontario’s aging labour pool to adopt new skills to stay competitive.
And despite a commitment from the Ontario government to develop the region’s mineral resources and a push to help foster innovation in Northern Ontario with new technology, the current workforce – at least when it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI), autonomous equipment, and battery electric vehicles (BEV) – is playing catch-up.
Reggie Caverson, executive director of Workforce Planning for Sudbury & Manitoulin and one of the report’s co-authors, said a lot of money, both government and private, has been focused on tech, not workers.
“Everybody's kind of pushing the innovation envelope, but nobody's really looking at what impact that will have on the workforce skills that will be needed,” Caverson said.
The data was gathered from a year-long interview process with some of the industry’s top players. Although Caverson said she’s keeping their names out of the spotlight – CEOs are more forthcoming with a bit of privacy, she said – their collective concerns about the labour pool are being pushed forefront of the conversation.
“I’m not going to say we’re sounding the alarm bells,” Caverson said. “But there are companies that have a lot of people who are skilled labourers, skilled workers, and the question is, How can they upskill those workers?”
The skills gap doesn’t come as a surprise to Caverson.
She’s been telling stakeholders in Northern Ontario a labour crunch is coming, since at least 2015.
Growing the labour force was even a pillar of the province’s Critical Minerals Strategy, a road map to secure Ontario’s place on the global critical minerals field. But the strategy didn’t directly address the steps needed to spur that growth.
“The reality is the jobs in the mining industry probably won't stay exactly the same,” Caverson said.
The report uses some strong language to get its point across. “The new reality is imminent, not somewhere in the distant future," reads one passage in the introduction.
The report also suggests that there’s a growing divide – a “generational gap”, Caverson said – that keeps some veteran miners from adopting some of the new ways.
And the workers choosing the mining industry in the coming years are more likely to be familiar with things like AI and cloud-based data storage than with hands-on drilling equipment.
That creates a bit of a problem as the industry starts to adopt fast-moving technologies that require a shift in mindset, something the veteran workers may not have had the opportunity to embrace in the work setting.
“Companies don't want to lose their workforce,” Caverson said. “They just feel that they may need to do more training and other things to upskill people.”
“When you've got your supervisors or managers who may not be as comfortable with digital technologies working with young workers coming in, the question becomes, How can you create teams that work together?”
One of the report's recommendations is that companies might benefit from pooling their talent together with other stakeholders to make the North an attractive place for newcomers, and a place that retains its homegrown talent.
“Let's identify the top 10 things that we need. Is there a way that we can work together to attract those people to our area and our industry?” Caverson said.
The role of post-secondary schools in addressing the challenge
The report also recommends that post-secondary schools get more programs up and running that will help provide the necessary pipeline of skills and talent.
In Sudbury, Cambrian College, Collège Boréal, and Laurentian University all have programs tailored to the industry, but data from the report suggests that it’s not keeping up with industry demand.
“All the stuff that happened around Laurentian certainly changed our community,” Caverson said, alluding to the university’s insolvency and then the ensuing teardown of programs.
“And right now, our college programs, and Laurentian, are heavily focused on international students. But we have to do more to attract them to stay.”
Janice Clark, Cambrian’s interim vice-president academic, said the data in the report confirms what the school has been hearing from the industry for years – the face of mining is changing and communities need to get on board.
“We know there is always more to do and we are definitely taking these recommendations to heart,” Clark said in an email to Northern Ontario Business.
“While we want to move at the speed of industry, any new program or significant program overhaul has to meet very strict criteria from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to ensure the students are receiving the knowledge and training that are required to meet professional standards.”
“That process takes time and it is not something you want to rush because you want your students to have that solid foundation when they graduate.”
Currently, the school offers co-op placements for all of their 20-plus trades and technology programs, which gives students on-site experiences with employers while they learn.
The school also opened its Electric Vehicle Lab in the Cambrian R&D Centre for Smart Mining, which focuses on the refinement and adoption of EV technology in heavy industry, particularly mining, and training to upskill workers in that field.
Are mining companies ready to pivot and shift?
Now, Caverson said she’s circulating the report to different levels of government, school presidents and company CEOs to get their feedback.
At the end of the day, Caverson said, the findings of the report should open some eyes in the industry.
The sector’s success moving into the future likely depends on it.
“If all of a sudden you're not able to produce as quickly as another company, or you run into safety hazards, or haven't kept up with what the industry needs, that could hurt your companies,” Caverson said.
“I think every company has to pivot and shift all the time. And this is just trying to lay out for them some of the pivoting and the shifting that might need to happen.”
“That’s not ‘might’ need to happen. It’s already happening,”