In a rapidly evolving industry, what skills will professionals require to take on the challenges of tomorrow?
In the December 2017 AusIMM Bulletin, Michelle Ash correctly pointed out that our industry in the future will not exist in the same way as it does now. This is an important observation, as it begs the question of which skills we currently consider so vital to our industry and how these might change. The simple answer is that everything is up for grabs.
Non-operational roles quickly disappeared from sites a few years ago as communication and automation proved it could be done cheaper elsewhere. It became the thin end of the wedge, as the same approach is now delivering driverless trucks and remote monitoring. These are very small examples of continuous change that envelop all industries, not just mining. It also further illustrates that new skills are displacing the old; the pace of this change is now faster in mining than it has ever been in AusIMM’s 125 year history.
Here and now
Much has been written about the workforce of the future as if this future state is at a far-off point in time. The reality is that the future is here and it’s now. Whatever roles our professionals are performing today, be assured that somewhere in the world that same work is currently being challenged, improved, systematised or eliminated. In their place, new jobs and skills are growing. Perhaps at a pace not yet perceivable as having an immediate effect on our many professions; but over the next 20 years change will be thrust upon us when we least expect it.
When mining industry consultants VCI asked industry CEOs which mining areas will have the biggest impact over the next 15 years, it wasn’t traditional professions at the top of their list. Instead the surveyed executives ranked robotics and automation; artificial intelligence, decision support and analytics; and sensing and data as the first three areas that will bring the most profound changes to our sector.
Yet how many of us are ready to embrace this seismic shift in requisite skills?
One step at a time
The first step in preparing for the future is to get familiar with what’s happening elsewhere in the industry, and understand the unfolding trends of those companies considered to be at the leading edge and the non-linear thinkers that lead them. Mining has an identical bell curve to most other industries, with imaginative and progressive outliers at one end, the followers in the middle and the remainder at the other end.
The second step in avoiding ‘future shock’ is attitudinal. Mining and related service organisations are adapting quickly and professionals should learn how to identify the tell-tale signs that technological change is imminent, and likewise adapt their skills to fit the new or emergent business paradigm. This outcome may seem tough to achieve alongside the demands of a day job or within the confines of a site-based shift role in a remote location, but unless adaptation occurs, the risk of becoming irrelevant to the business becomes increasingly high as each year passes. To paraphrase Darwin, only the fittest survive.
The third step is to get on the front foot and think about the process and technological improvements that can easily transfer from mining peers or perhaps other industries. One of the hallmarks of rapid innovation is the ability to take a solution that is already solving a problem elsewhere and apply it locally. Not all mining innovation originates from our industry – big data for predictive analytics had its genesis in the US retail sector.
Finally, the best and most frequently proven way of becoming a part of the workforce of the future is training and, if required, re-skilling. This can take the form of continuous learning through conferences such as those run by AusIMM; or by undertaking course work in areas that are clearly future-focused, such as robotics or artificial intelligence. Considered through the lens of a ten, 20 or 30 year future career, it may prove to be a very small investment of time and effort.
Get ready for change
As VCI identified in its ‘State of Play’ survey, technological change and disruption, along with a technically aware generation of employees entering the workforce, will combine to have a profound impact on our industry in the future. As miners move into more difficult geographies to find the next economic resource, and environmental and community concerns become more complex to resolve, innovation and technology will become key strategic platforms for growth. The workforce of the future will need to be ready to face these challenges. And we, the workforce of today, need to be readying ourselves now for the opportunities that these changes will bring.