If you could use intelligent machines to do work that otherwise puts humans at risk of serious injury, why wouldn’t you? And if those intelligent machines also increase the productivity of your operations far more than humans ever could, well, that’s even better. However, the humans might have a question: “What about us?”
This is the great opportunity—and challenge—miners face today.
We’ve seen autonomous operations steadily adopted within the mining industry for nearly a decade now. It started with autonomous vehicles and other mobile equipment. But soon it will encompass the entire production operation, from drilling, charging and blasting to loading and trucking. At Accenture, we’re already seeing this happen with some of our clients, and for good reason.
The value of automation is undeniable. World Economic Forum projects that automation and robotics could prevent 10,000 injuries in the mining and metals industries between 2015 and 2025.1 What’s more, with just 3 percent of the industry currently using autonomous mobile equipment, those companies that do are seeing a 15–30 percent rise in productivity.2 These are numbers that will get any business owner’s attention.
Here’s the challenge: As adoption of autonomous operations continues to increase, the number of people required in the field will shrink substantially. In their place will rise the workforce of the future. The questions we must ask are 1) what will this future workforce look like, and 2) how will you build it?
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To win interest and enthusiasm from young people, miners will also need to rebrand as modern, digital businesses.
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Building the workforce of the future
It’s clear that with autonomous operations in the field, people will be needed in new and different capacities. For example, rather than running one machine on site, an operator could manage multiple pieces of autonomous machinery. There will likely be the need for a range of new roles in operational control, predictive maintenance, data processing and mine planning, among others.
Now, how do you build this new workforce? Here at Accenture, we advise clients to approach this challenge across three layers of the workforce.
Recruiting the next generation
The first layer to look at is the younger generation coming up through the education system. Therefore, we recommend that companies start partnering with educators right away because it will take several years to develop the necessary pipeline of new talent needed for autonomous operations. This is especially important as the number of students pursuing mining-related degrees has fallen off sharply in the last decade.
According to the Minerals Council of Australia, by 2022 just 50 university graduates are expected to enter the industry, down from a peak of 300 during the mining boom of 2008 to 2012.3 This is why BHP has partnered with two educational institutions in Australia to begin training the next generation of mining professionals.4 Other companies would be wise to follow BHP’s example.
To win interest and enthusiasm from young people, miners will also need to rebrand as modern, digital businesses. We’re working with a mining client’s HR and company leadership to redefine the corporate culture, creating an atmosphere of innovation—and focusing on overall work experience, not just job function.
Helping mature workers transition to new roles
The second layer of the workforce contains those mature, seasoned workers with several years of experience in the industry. As these people will soon live with digital mining, companies should act quickly and decisively to ensure their knowledge is effectively augmented with new skills so they remain relevant as the industry shifts to autonomous operations.
One approach is running internal learning and development programs to help seasoned workers gain new skills in areas such as analytics, AI, remote autonomous operations, etc. To help another client in South Africa do just that, we partnered with a local start-up to pilot a new learning and development platform. Using new multimedia, rich video, audio, animation and intuitive navigation, this company was able to upskill every one of its employees for a digital future.
Reinvesting institutional knowledge from near-retirees
In the third layer are your older workers who are approaching retirement. These people have institutional knowledge that can be reinvested in the new digital business. They have a deep understanding of the industry and how mines operate. They have experience, knowledge and insights, such as environmental and market factors, that could impact production.
People working remotely in offices need to tap into this valuable resource. You might even think of this older generation of your workforce as an internal consulting team to help digital workers—hundreds or thousands of kilometers from a mine site—to understand what is actually happening on the ground.
Across all these areas, it’s important to keep in mind why the industry is undergoing this transformation to autonomous operations. Fundamentally, it comes back to safety and productivity. What’s at the heart of both is people. By investing in upskilling and reskilling your people, you not only enable them to be successful in the new world of digital mining, but also to maximize your return on investment, with fewer injuries and greater output.
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1 World Economic Forum and Accenture, January 2017: Digital Transformation Initiative: Mining and Metals Industry
2 Goodes, C, Pearce, A and Scales, P (2018). Mining. Input paper for the Horizon Scanning Project The Effective and Ethical Development of Artificial Intelligence: An Opportunity to Improve Our Wellbeing on behalf of the Australian Council of Learned Academies, www.acola.org
3 Lucas, Jarrod. abc.net.au (2018). Skills shortage: Australia facing critical decline of new mining engineers
4 BHP.com, May 2020: New BHP academy welcomes 250 new apprentices and trainees