The outlook for Canadian mining

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2017

Gary Peters speaks to Ryan Montpellier* about the labour market outlook for the Canadian mining industry.

Can you outline the work the council undertakes?

The Canadian Mining Industry Human Resources Council is an independent, non-profit corporation of which I am the executive director and oversee all operations of the council. We have a mandate to identify and address the labour market and human resource issues facing the industry. Our goal is to help build a workforce that is skilled, safe, diverse and confident.

We do this by collaborating with mining employers, colleges and universities, labour associations and Indigenous groups – bringing these people together to better understand the labour market and ensure we have the right programmes in place to meet the future needs of the sector.

In your opinion, what are the standout findings of your most recent labour market outlook report? 

The key finding is that the industry continues to have challenges in recruiting workers. A significant number of the workforce is ageing – about 30% are approaching the last five, six, seven years of their career. Under a moderate growth scenario, we forecast that the industry will need to hire up to 130,000 new workers over the course of the next decade. 

That's a daunting number, and almost 85% of it is due to replacement demand. We need to hire and develop the next generation of mine workers in Canada. We already see a trend in the use of robotics and automation, which will no doubt have a labour impact. However, we have to continue to invest in a number of attraction, recruitment, retention and development programmes to meet this need.

The report states that ‘following a steady decline beginning in the early 2010s, the mining industry has begun to show signs of economic recovery’.

What do you attribute this to? 

There's a strong correlation between prices and movements and the number of people working in the sector.

As the price of base metals and other commodities rebound, we see people hiring again, mines that were temporarily closed are opening and others are expanding.

Your 2017 report states that it is likely the sector will struggle to find the workers it needs in the long-term – what are the barriers?

There are a number of barriers. First, very few people grow up saying ''I want to be a miner''. You still have people that want the traditional careers and mining is often second or third choice.

Also, for the most part, mining is not located in large urban centres – they are rural and remote and the workforce is often mobile.

There are also significant challenges in attracting a more diverse workforce. About 19% of the sector are women, but if you look at, for example, maintenance operations on site, that number falls to about 5%. 

People still have negative stereotypes about what a career in mining offers. We have to get better at communicating what the modern mining industry is all about. In Canada, mining is one of the safest industrial sectors, but that has not been communicated enough. There are a number of factors that contribute to what we refer to as a tight labour market – diversity, rural and remote challenges and cultural. Also, there's the economic volatility. When times are challenging, the industry doesn't invest a lot in students and apprenticeships, so there's this feast or famine process. When commodity prices rebound, they hire quite aggressively and invest in training, but when things take a downturn, some of those programmes are cast aside.'

So, it's not so much a lack of skill, but actually the attractiveness of the sector and getting people to consider a career in mining?

That's a significant part of it – developing that passion for minerals and metals early on, and educating young people about the opportunities.

There's a lot going for the industry. It pays almost 50% more than the Canadian average, offers the chance to travel and there's progression and career development. However, the question is, how do we compete with other sectors that have similar benefits and allow people to work in large urban centres, which seems to be where millennials are migrating to.

What can the sector do to meet your forecast?

There are a number of initiatives underway now. The first is to try to create more diverse workforces and make the place of work more inclusive. We also need to be more open to Indigenous communities.

Then, it's about trying to reposition some of these careers in the mining sector and create a sense of pride. We have a Canadian Mining Certification Program that certifies miners and provides them with the credentials they can take with them.

Also, it's about investing in the talent pipeline and specifically on supporting students, providing summer jobs, co-ops, internships and apprenticeships. We need to ensure that the next generation has access to sites and operations, so when they do graduate they have some experience and knowledge of the sector.

Can you outline some of the council's projects?

We have a few programmes that are really making a difference. The first is Gender Equity in Mining Works (GEM Works). This is a suite of tools to help companies address barriers in their organisations – perhaps they don't even realise some of their policies favour men over women. GEM Works is a resource that allows companies to look at their policies through a gender lens. It's about changing the culture of the industry, and at the moment we have about a dozen companies that have adopted this programme. By making a few small tweaks to policies, companies can build more inclusive workplaces.

We also have the Canadian Mining Certification Program, which I mentioned earlier. This is a huge challenge. Mines open and close constantly, and our research shows that on average, someone who starts their career today will work in seven different mines. That's a lot of moving around and needing to re-demonstrate your skills in the workplace. The certification is basically a skills passport that employees can take from mine to mine, showing their skills and experience.

How confident are you that the sector will meet hiring targets? 

I'm definitely confident that the industry will be successful in attracting the next generation. 

However, are they going to be able to do it in a competitive way?

If you pay enough, you will attract people. It becomes a question of supply and demand. Any investment in developing a pipeline of skilled workers – through schools, immigration, retraining from other sectors – will ensure that mines stay competitive. 

Companies are taking this seriously, investing in student development and training. Having said that, there's no doubt that the next decade – with the
exodus of retiring workers – is going to be a challenge.

What are the consequences of not filling the gaps? 

Well, obviously if the people are not there to support operations, new mines won't open or projects will be delayed. Mines will not be able to operate at the desired level. If the workers are not there, there's no doubt that production targets [will suffer].

The challenge here is that no company can tackle this issue on its own. This is something that needs the effort of the industry as a whole.

Is this labour outlook unique to the Canadian mining sector, or are we seeing a similar pattern elsewhere? 

We have done some work on this, internationally. I'd say there are many factors that are common worldwide, but also some that are unique to Canada – the age structure and demographic profile, for example. The mining industry is not alone in facing this retirement exodus, which exacerbates our challenge in that we have to compete.

Certainly, however, we do share a number of challenges. The industry is primarily male and continues to operate in rural and remote locations – that's true in Africa, Australia and South America.

*Ryan Montpellier is Executive Director at the Mining Industry Human Resources Council, a not-for-profit organisation that works to identify and address the HR and labour market challenges facing the Canadian minerals and metals sector.