August 2016

Future mining issues and mining education

  • By Professor Sam Spearing, Acting Director, Western Australian School of Mines and Professor Steve Hall, Executive Director, Mining Education Australia

Changes in the way minerals professionals are educated will allow the industry to retain a highly skilled workforce, even during times of uncertainty

It is basically impossible to consider an advanced global society that is not dependent on mining and farming. Because of this, minerals-related professions will remain relevant for the foreseeable future, unlike many other careers that are becoming redundant due to advances in technology. However, the challenges facing the sector are likely to increase significantly in the future due to:

many mine sites becoming more remote and/or located in developing countries

  • mines becoming deeper
  • mines moving off-shore (subsea mining) or even off-earth (asteroid mining)
  • grades generally becoming lower
  • the need for improved community interaction and relations
  • increasing environmental restrictions.
  • The nature of the jobs in the mining industry is changing too because of:
  • ongoing automation and robotics
  • remote mining
  • in situ mining or partial in situ mining
  • increased real-time monitoring (of temperature, gases, movement, etc) to detect potential problems sooner, providing large amounts of data that must be managed
  • the need for more meaningful open discussions and collaborations with local communities.

These changes will go a long way to significantly reducing the risk to miners, either by removing them from the working face or, even better, removing them from being underground altogether. This can be achieved in degrees by automation and by placing personnel in enclosed ventilation-controlled cabins with positive pressure and effective air filtration. In the periods where the mine personnel are not in vehicles, workers could be fitted with state-of-the-art filtration systems.

Minerals industry education in the future

How will we train our skilled minerals professionals in the future, and how can we ensure adequate numbers of new professionals? The cyclical nature of the mining resources industry, with its dramatic booms and busts, will continue due to the cycles of the global economy. Figure 1 shows the relationship between the number of mining engineering graduates and the mineral price index. Current enrolments in the earlier years of study indicate that, across Australia, the number of graduates in 2018-2019 could fall to levels not seen since the early 1990s. Parents of children completing secondary school see a barrage of negative press about the ‘bust cycle’ in the minerals industry without being given, or considering, the typical reasons for the bust, which are usually associated with a global economic downturn led by a ‘crash’ in manufacturing and construction. This can be seen to some extent in Table 1, which shows the employment rates for graduates just out of university.

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The 2015 figures will only be released later in 2016, but it is likely that employment rates in all engineering categories will have dropped further. A similar situation exists with earth sciences graduates.

The current situation is believed to be similar across the US, Canada and Europe. The global danger is that university management closes programs in response to low student demand and aging academic workforces. However, increasing numbers of quality mining graduates with global aspirations and multi-lingual skills are emerging from many other parts of the world (eg Africa, China and South America).

Mining engineering graduation rates in the US for 2014-2015 are given as follows (personal communication, Carol Kiser, SME, 2016):

  • 315 Bachelor of Science degrees in mining engineering
  • 79 Master of Science and Master of Engineering degrees in mining engineering
  • 35 PhDs
  • 429 total graduates.

The total number of graduates in 2014-2015 was significantly more than in 2013-2014 (340 in total), but enrolment in 2015-2016 is estimated to be approximately 100 fewer than the previous year.

In the future, significant modifications related to the method of education delivery, the curricula and the enrolments in the mineral resources industry will be needed.

The traditional method of attending lectures during a whole semester will need to change so that students can work nearly full-time with short (eg week-long) bursts of intensive contact time for lectures and laboratories. The remainder of material could be accessed online using high-quality audio-visual delivery. The current system of 12-13 weeks of contact time per semester would change to, for example, four weeks of one-week sections, thus allowing the student to complete work experience in their chosen mining resources career while obtaining a tertiary education. This would assist students by reducing the effective cost of obtaining their degree, and also help their employers by creating truly job-ready and fully-trained graduates.

Flexible pathways via staged qualifications in mining-related disciplines will also become more important, as the number of jobs people hold throughout their career is expected to increase dramatically. Retraining via four- or five-year degree programs is unlikely; recognition of prior learning and skills will be important within much shorter diploma or postgraduate qualifications. These qualifications will increasingly combine skills development with relevant knowledge. The future of the technical and further education (TAFE) sector in Australia and how it, or others, bridges the divide between the conventional higher education sector is critical to developing the highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce that the mining industry will need. There is much greater mobility than is often realised from the university sector to the TAFE sector, either post-degree or during degree study, to acquire industry-specific skills. Dual-sector institutions providing quality, flexible programs – possibly combining advanced diplomas with associate degrees – will allow people to move more quickly between industry sectors, especially within the mineral resources sector.

The changes to the requirements of holders of statutory positions in the industry will pose opportunities for institutions that can work with employers to combine practical experience and relevant qualifications. International mobility will increase, with students studying across borders as part of their qualifications rather than when moving from undergraduate to postgraduate studies as is more common today. Increasing numbers of internationally-mobile students, studying for shorter periods of time at any one institution and with different pedagogical and cultural backgrounds, will further challenge academic and support staff. This is in addition to academic staff having to embrace often disruptive technologies inside and outside the classroom.

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Table 2 indicates possible future mining engineering capabilities that would be taught in a four- or possibly five-year configuration. The five-year engineering program (currently comprising a four-year Bachelor of Engineering plus a one-year Master’s degree) could be useful and produce more specialised mineral resource professionals. This may become mandated by the Washington Accord (the international agreement providing cross-recognition of many national engineering programs) in the future as aligned with the Bologna Accord.

Holland (2015) identifies the key changes that will be needed in talent focus and leadership as the emphasis moves to a highly skilled, specialised and trained, but smaller, workforce. The CEO of the future will need to be a ‘portfolio manager, consultant, strategist and coach rather than a full-time manager’. The authors believe that community relations will also play a critical role.

Holland (2015) also highlights the need for partnerships with governments, universities and training colleges to redefine curricula. Australia is well-positioned in this regard and continues to pursue partnerships through Mining Education Australia (MEA). MEA is a unique collaboration between the University of Adelaide, the University of Queensland, UNSW Australia and Curtin University. MEA is supported by industry (and initially the government) to deliver a common curriculum for third- and fourth-year undergraduates in the mining engineering program. A further collaborative program has been developed as the Minerals Industry National Associate Degree in mining engineering, which is currently being offered by the University of Southern Queensland and Central Queensland University. Effective collaborations of some sort will continue to be important.

A significant challenge will be to recruit, refresh and retain the teaching and training workforce needed in the future by all industries (including some industries that do not yet exist). The speed of innovation and the application of new technologies is likely to see the role of contractors and service providers grow. As a result, mining companies will focus on managing the orebody, the financial and stakeholder engagement aspects of the business and community relations and environmental aspects. Financial and stakeholder engagement is already demanding a much different skill set from senior management than it did a few decades ago. Financial and community stakeholder management consultants will be as important as technical and environmental consultants. Controlling the flow of information to and from a broad range of consulting firms and maximising value will fall to relatively junior graduates within mining companies. It is possible that many more employment opportunities will emerge within the supporting professional services rather than in established mining companies, and these roles will likely be populated with graduates and retrained staff. Opportunities to develop junior companies through exploration, mining, processing and innovative technical solutions will continue to be available to those willing to take up the challenges.

Education will increasingly need to develop people as receptors of innovation and champions of research (ie adaptive to ongoing change), but this shouldn’t come at the expense of the values and traditions of the industry. The speculative nature of investment in mining ventures, due to geological and price uncertainty, is likely to remain at the heart of an increasingly complex and cyclical industry. The challenge is to attract sufficient bright students of all ages to participate such that the education system will want to continue to provide appropriate programs of study.

The challenge of helping to ensure that mining companies have adequate numbers of mining resources graduates to meet their needs might require a ‘back to the future’ approach with greater use of internship periods during study (the ‘co-op’ model). Using five-year plans, companies should ideally know the number of geologists, surveyors, mining engineers and metallurgical engineers that they will require to meet their needs in either boom or bust cycles. Mines could employ school leavers or first-year tertiary students, have them intern for a trial period and then employ and sponsor them through university by paying the costs less the Commonwealth grant available. The company would have an agreement with each sponsored student that they would work for a period of two to four years after graduation, or repay the tuition and support monies paid. Personal and company taxation issues in Australia might have to be addressed in support of this initiative. With the reduced contact time at university, this is a feasible and sustainable method to ensure that the mineral resources industry has adequate skilled personnel, irrespective of the stage of the mining cycle.  

References

Holland N, 2015. The gold mining company of the future, presentation to the Gordon Institute of Business Science, Johannesburg, October 2015. Available from: www.goldfields.com/pdf/presentations/2015/gold_fields_mine_of_the_future_28102015.pdf

Share This Article
  • Keith Whitchurch
    13 Oct 2016 at 9.12pm

    A truly appalling continuation of the dumbing down of what is now called mining engineering but is largely mining management. A spectacular lack of emphasis on basic science and design skills.

  • Ray Tolhurst
    24 Sep 2016 at 4.44pm

    An excellent, thoughtful article by Sam and Steve. However, as they are aware, it shouldn’t be thought that ” the need for partnerships with governments, universities and training colleges to redefine curricula” can only be achieved through the Mineral Council’s Mining Education Australia, MEA, program.

    MEA resulted from the Minerals Council of Australia’s Back from the Brink: Recovering Australia’s Mineral Industry Education” published in 1998 and implemented in 2001, with the main objective of reducing the then seven Australian university mining programs to three. MEA has been spectacularly unsuccessful in achieving that objective, as shown by the then seven mining programs growing to eight now, rather than being reduced to three. The reasons for this failure are that the Mineral Councils/MEA model has failed to take account of many factors that are important to most of the other significant stakeholder groups, including students, the universities involved, local miming companies and comprehensive mining research needs. Even MEA has acknowledged that three mining engineering programs in Australia was inappropriate, through adding a fourth member soon after it was formed.

    The outcome for mining engineering education has been that innovation has occurred both inside the four MEA universities and outside amongst the other four, (Ballarat,[now Federation], Monash, Western Australia and Wollongong). This development of innovative approaches can be amply demonstrated by the University of Wollongong’s mining engineering program, which at the time that MEA was formed had the second smallest number of domestic students of the then seven mining programs, but is now the second biggest of the eight, including being larger than three of the four MEA programs.

    Just as Mick Tuck has pointed out with his example of the flexible delivery of the mining engineering graduate diploma through Ballarat, [Federation], the other non-MEA mining programs adjusted and innovated to meet specific purposes. At the University of Wollongong, the focus of the mining engineering program has been on structured curriculum enrichment, embedding many of the concepts that Sam and Steve have outlined in their paper and building students employability skills. The outcome is that of the six university mining programs with sufficient graduates for the Australian Bureau of Statistics to publish results, (Adelaide Curtin, Queensland, UNSW, Wollongong and UWA), Wollongong’s programs have the highest graduate employment rate, with the highest median starting salaries. This is not to imply the Wollongong’s mining program is better than the others, it’s more to demonstrate that all of the mining programs have something to offer, both those inside MEA and those outside of MEA.

    AusIMM has recognised the University of Wollongong approach, by conducting the Wollongong Employability Workshops as webinars for students and recent graduates from all universities engaged in minerals industry programs, with highly positive feedback from the participants.

    These Employability Skills webinars are an example of the broad collaboration that Sam and Steve have shown is needed. It’s just that it’s collaboration cross all universities, led by AusIMM, not just collaboration inside the closed group of the four MEA programs.

    It should also be noted that there is significant “unofficial” collaboration between MEA and non-MEA university mining programs, but there appears to be a reluctance to promote it . For example the ventilation system used as the core of the UNSW mining ventilation post-graduate program has been donated on long term loan, at no cost from Wollongong. The reason for this is that the industry and the profession are getting far better value by the system being used by UNSW than being unused, in storage, at Wollongong. Similarly Wollongong and UNSW are collaborating in providing access to nationally recognised industry-based competencies for students at no cost through the NSW State Governments’ Smart and Skilled program. Again UNSW and Wollongong are jointly sponsoring the student research thesis poster competition at the 2017 Australian Coal Operators Conference. See the e=website http://www.coaloperatorsconference.net.au/student-research-poster-competition

    The core message is that in the national interest, the mineral industry interest and the profession’s interest, there is a need for collaboration and the spreading of good approaches throughout all universities delivering mining engineering programs, not just within the MEA group. AusiMM can, and is, playing a vital role in this as it continues to be a highly respected honest broker in achieving the best outcomes for minerals industry students, irrespective of what university they attend.

  • Rodolfo Espinosa-Gomez
    18 Sep 2016 at 3.10pm

    Future mining issues and mining education

  • Philip Plaisted
    16 Aug 2016 at 3.27pm

    Sam and Steves paper provides plenty of food for thought. Those with some basic thought may see the opportunity in choosing a mining related career in a down turn in the knowledge of the cyclical nature of the industry and the rebound of jobs.
    They touch on the key areas of providing flexibility in educational offerings (content and delivery) to keep abreast of the changing environment as well as the importance of enabling undergraduates to work whilst studying so that they are attractive to employers at graduation. This is an important discussion and may it continue.

    • Mick Tuck   •   22 Sep 2016 at 10.40am

      Excellent paper which does provide plenty of food for thought. Flexibility is the key for the future of mining engineering education at all levels. Steve may be drawing some of his way forward thoughts from his time in Ballarat, where the graduate diploma of mining has been evolving over the years to provide flexible delivery options to the students. There is no reason to see why this cannot be expanded into other qualifications across the entire range of the Australian Qualifications framework.

      An important discussion to ensure the continuation of the mining schools that still exist