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TACKLING THE MINING SKILLS CRISIS

 

The Search for Mining Talent  

Expertise and skills transfer-Pinnacle to Industry success

By Chanda Simpindu

Figure 1 Mopani Central training Centre

Zambia is endowed with a vast amount of mineral resources which need to be properly utilised for the benefit of Zambians. However, mining investment usually comes with a lot of challenges and pressures on governments from investors.

“Zambia, like many other resource-rich developing countries, has a huge challenge to ensure that the country receives an appropriate share of the economic rent, and at the same time attracts and sustains the much-needed foreign investment. Therefore, it is imperative that Zambia has a pool of well-trained, exposed and experienced professionals in various aspects of mining to manage such complex systems”, says former Mines and Mineral Development Minister, Christopher Yaluma.

Skills development is an investment for Zambia’s long-term competitiveness of the sector, the companies and its shareholders, and ultimately for its contribution to the nation’s economy and society.

The experience of the Zambian mining sector has shown that previous efforts in the area of skills development have been poorly coordinated and not designed in a cohesive or sustainable manner. The situation has been exacerbated since privatisation of the mines, according to the Zambia Mining Skills Education Trust.

A recent publication by the Zambia Chamber of Mines, titled “Searching for Talent-Skills and Employment in the Global Mining Sector” explains that it is the exponential growth in global mining production in the last 20 years that has drained the global talent pool; the industry has become the victim of its own success. That’s why identifying, nurturing and training tomorrow’s mining talent have become the number one priority for the world’s mines. In Zambia, for example, this involves scholarships, formal skills-transfer programmes, and the investment of millions of dollars in high-tech training centres to keep up with rapidly evolving mining technology.

“Alleviating the skills shortage in the short term means facilitating the smooth entry of expertise into the industry, and recognising the crucial role it plays both in skills transfer and in allowing mines to function at global levels of competitiveness,” Nathan Chishimba, Chamber of Mines President was quoted as saying.

MINING REQUIRES VERY SPECIFIC SKILLS

Safety demands high standards. Mining is one of the highest-risk industries in the world. Men and women work in dangerous conditions, both above ground and below, in extremes of temperature, and in close proximity to heavy machinery and equipment. The stakes are high; and so are the skills required. A typical mine employs geologists, metallurgists, technicians, mechanics, environmental experts, doctors, nurses, paramedics, financial managers, accountants, managers, superintendents, overseers, and engineers of all stripes – mainly mining, electrical and chemical. Only the best make it into the industry. This includes mine artisans – such as riggers, boilermakers and mechanics – who face rigorous selection criteria. For example, Mopani’s Training Centre in Mufulira, and the FQM-sponsored Solwezi Trades Training Institute in North-Western province, will only accept applicants with top marks in maths, science and English.

Modern technology has made mining productive, efficient and relatively safe. Lowgrade ore, often located in remote regions, can now be mined profitably, safely and with less damage to the environment. This benefits employees, shareholders, communities and governments. But high technology also means high skills.

Cost and complexity make mining skills intensive. It takes about a billion dollars to start a new mine and a couple of million dollars a day to keep it running. The life-cycle of a mine – from exploration and construction to ramp-up, full production and rehabilitation – is measured in decades, and requires a wide range of high level skills. Ore bodies are often complex, and it’s not always obvious where the rich grades are.

RISING DEMAND FOR MINING SKILLS

There is a global shortage of mining skills. The shortage was ranked as the number-one risk facing the industry by professional services company Ernst & Young.

The main factor driving demand for mining skills over the last 20 years has been the rapidly increasing number of mines being built and expanded around the world to meet the growing global appetite for metals and minerals, particularly from China. This rapid growth in new mining production has been particularly strong in emerging economies in Africa, Asia and South America. Zambia itself is a good example: since privatisation in 1997, nearly $15 billion of new mining investment has seen the expansion of existing mines and the creation of new ones. Zambia’s copper production has tripled since then, and the once-backward North-Western province has boomed to become Zambia’s main copper-producing region.

MOBILITY OF HIGH-LEVEL SKILLS

Experienced people are in demand, and change jobs and countries. Supply and demand when something is in short supply, it tends to be in great demand – and mining skills are no exception. Mining companies the world over are struggling to find the right candidates with the right blend of skills and experience. “There was a time when you could easily find four or five people to fill a high-level position,” Johan Jansen, immediate past CEO of the Copperbelt based Mopani Copper Mines told mining for Zambia. “Now you battle to find just one.” And even once you’ve found someone, it’s not always easy to keep them, Jansen said.

 

GREAT BENEFIT TO ZAMBIA

The inflow of foreign mining expertise into Zambia over the past 20 years has been of great benefit, enabling the country to rehabilitate and refurbish existing mines, construct entirely new mines, and help existing mines operate at global levels of efficiency and competitiveness.

An example is FQM Kansanshi’s $900-million, technologically advanced smelter, which started operating in 2015. It was constructed in record time, thanks in large part to a 3 000-strong team of highly qualified welders from Asia – known as Coded Welders – who specialise in the construction of this kind of infrastructure. Many of them had worked together on similar projects in other parts of the world. As soon as the construction was complete, they left Zambia for the next international project requiring their skills. The smelter was then brought to full production in an unprecedented five months. The smelter is one of the most advanced of its kind operating anywhere in the world today. It employs around 750 people, and they include a small core of international experts from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Russia and Kazakhstan. The staff often joke that “it’s like the United Nations in here”.

TACKLING THE SKILLS CRISIS;

The focus is on training, as well as hiring international expertise.  Multiple training initiatives In the face of the global mining skills shortage, a dedicated focus on training has taken hold in the world’s mining companies. It targets both new and existing employees, and includes ongoing education, coaching, mentoring and first-hand exposure to different mines and mining technique.

Funding and building training institutions ,as part of a drive to broaden the available pool of graduates in mining-related disciplines, mining companies in many countries provide financial assistance to schools and universities. In Zambia, mining companies provide financial assistance to the University of Zambia’s School of Mines, in the form of books, bursaries and the maintenance of vital infrastructure. They also accept students – up to 20 at a time – on internships before they graduate so that they can gain exposure to modern mining technology and techniques. As part of a vision to create a centre of excellence for the mining industry in NorthWestern province, FQM Kansanshi has teamed up with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Vocational Training and invested more than $3 million in the joint development of a technical training facility dubbed SOTTI – Solwezi Trades Training Institute. Since starting in 2014, SOTTI has turned out more than 400 graduates – including many from Barrick Lumwana – in metal fabrication, electrical power and heavy equipment repair. Mopani has gone even further and invested more than $20 million in the construction of a technical training school of international standing in Mufulira. With its high-level lecturers and high-tech equipment – including simulators – the centre focuses on coursework that prepares students for the market.

Coaching and mentoring Coaching and mentoring typically involves assigning an understudy to a more senior person, in the context of a formal skills transfer programme.

 

THE NEED TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SKILLS DEVELOPMENT FUND

Government through parliament enacted act no. 46 of 2016 to establish the skills development levy of 0.5% payroll based, the government clearly stated that they will work in consultation with the private sector in the management of the levy at national level. Surprisingly, a full year has passed and as private sector we do not even know how much money the ministry of finance has received through this levy and whether the funds are being released to the relevant ministry, the ministry of higher education that should also release the funds for national skills development as intended.

The Zambia Federation of Employers (ZFE) has since appealed to the ministry of finance to be remitting the skills development levy funds to the relevant ministry each month and publicize the figures to social partners. “we are eager to engage on transparent mechanisms of making the funds yield the intended results in the national skills development agenda,” – Wesley Chikwanda Chishimba, President of ZFE says.

From the perspective of the mines, the challenge is to secure the right kind of expertise – whether international or local – for the skills transfer to happen.

From the perspective of the country, the challenge is to have the right policies and procedures in place that acknowledges the need for high-skill migration, but does so in a way that focuses on knowledge transfer and efficiency.

Ends//

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