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Mining Matters: How can technology attract new talent to an aging industry?

Even in an industry as well-established as mining, it is becoming more difficult to find and retain talent. Technological advancements like automation, artificial intelligence and data analytics are also changing the type of talent that is required to dig deeper and extract more. How can these advancements in technology help attract new talent to an aging industry?

NJ: Thanks for tuning into Mining Matters. Hi, I’m Neville Judd from HxGN Radio. Finding talented workers is a challenge in any industry. Advancements in technology are changing the skill sets needed in mining. Here to discuss how technology can attract new talent to the mining industry are Hexagon’s Mining Division CTO, Rob Daw and Director of the Geotechnical Centre of Excellence, Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources, Dr. Brad Ross. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us today.

All: Thanks, Neville. Thanks, Nev.

NJ: You bet. Glad to have you here. So, Brad, I’d like to start with you for some perspective on this topic. You and Rob have a long background in mining. How has technology changed the industry since you started, Brad?

BR: Wow. That’s a question that makes me feel kind of old, actually, Neville. When I started, it was just the dawn of the computer age, and so it hadn’t really hit mining yet. And so, we did all of our planning and all of our work manually. So instead of using a computer, we drew out the plans on paper. We did our calculations and everything on spreadsheets, with tables, and then typed in or manually handwritten notes for a report. So, it’s changed completely, right. From a very manual world to today, it’s just completely different the way that we do our work, and I might say a lot better that the concept of the good old days really doesn’t apply, I don’t think.

NJ: Right. I was going to say that must make you appreciate some of the advancements, I imagine, a lot of time saved in a lot of different processes.

BR: It does.

NJ: Yeah. Now, Rob, I knew you grew up on a farm, but you got into mining some time ago. What’s your perspective?

RD: Yeah, I completely agree. I think it’s really transformed from that manual phase into more digital world. And with that has come sort of speed of doing our jobs, increase the accuracy of where we’ve been able to work in the mining industry. And I think with the additional sort of sensors, analytics, the way that we consume and process information today has really enabled us to target those three key areas of increasing productivity, reducing our costs, and really focusing on safety and what we can do there. I think technology as well for mines has really been able to transform the mining industry, in the fact that open pits are now bigger, equipment is bigger, those sorts of advancements in the actual machinery itself. But whilst it’s an open pit, and then we can even look at underground. We’re probably going to be able to go smaller and more nimble and really targeted in our way that we can mine. And I mean, that has a huge impact on the ore bodies that we can mine and especially those marginal types of mines. And so, I think it’s really opening up opportunities for us to be able to explore new areas, mine new types of deposits, and really continue to advance the mining industry to make it a competitive industry amongst a sea of other sort of primary industries out there.

NJ: So, Rob, what are the Hexagon technologies that are creating new roles in mining or adapting to new roles in mining?

RD: Yeah, I think that’s the key point there, Neville. I don’t think we’re necessarily creating new roles. We’re really transforming existing roles into looking at different aspects of the mining value chain now. So, a few of the key ones, I think, off the top of my head would be looking at within the survey world. I think your traditional surveying role has really transformed over the years, from someone who used to be behind the total station and picking up points and out in the field quite a lot to now we’ve got a lot of automated technologies and drones and other types of tech that we can use. So, there’s kind of transition from surveying role into more of a spatial officer looking at the digital twin ecosystem and managing that data and leveraging that information from there. I think if we look at the Geotech side of things, we’re really not just looking at wall deformation but now moving more into hazard management. So how do we actually take that data and transform it and use it in the industry or in the mine itself to keep people safe? And then you look all the way down into sort of operators and moving more and more towards that autonomous technology stack, I think. No longer are they actually sitting in the cab, but they’re sitting in air-conditioned rooms with remote-control capabilities and monitoring capabilities. So, I think they’re just a few of the technologies that Hexagon’s providing that are really helping transform some of those roles in that industry.

BR: When you think about it, it’s not just in the office anymore. It’s now sitting at home, doing the work. You know, with COVID that’s one of the things that we’ve seen with COVID, is that the technology that we have really changes where we can work and how we do it. So, it’s a pretty amazing change, actually.

NJ: Yeah, that’s true.

RD: And I think the thing that impresses me most about that is how quickly or how rapidly we’ve adopted that change to be able to really push out that. And I think that’s a testament to where the mining industry is headed.

BR: Well, I think it has a lot to do with, having gone through the Bingham Canyon crisis, and crisis situations actually change the speed that things happen, right? And I think that certainly is the case the past six months. We’ve changed a lot of things that probably would have taken us years, if not decades, to change in reality.

NJ: Yeah. I remember you telling me, Brad, that the other thing that you observed among many things you observed at Bingham Canyon back in 2013 was just the level of maturity, the acceleration of maturity, among your staff in rising to the challenge there. I’m thinking there are probably parallels between a crisis like that and then this rather extended crisis we’re going through now.

BR: I think that’s very true, Neville. I think there’s a lot of corollaries there.

NJ: For sure. So, Brad, which—I mean, you have a view across all the technology companies out there and the technological advancements. Which jobs do you think will change or need to be created because of these recent technological advancements?

BR: Well, it’d probably be easier to list the jobs that do not change, right? Just like us going into the computer age from when I very first started. Basically, every job has changed, and that’s gone over 40 years since I’ve been in the industry. I think over the next few years, 10 years, we’ll see as much change in the difference in jobs as we’ve seen in the last 40 years. It’ll be things such as there’s going to be instead of having an expert now on I.T. helping people do their jobs and have their tools, you’re now going to have the A.I. expert that is actually different. It’s not just about the technology. It’s also about how we think of how to use the technology that they’re going to help us do. And so, you’re going to see a lot of different jobs that are going to be all about leveraging the technology. And so, things such as, you know, I went from writing my reports and having a manual spreadsheet to now we’re going to have individuals, all of us, are going to be using A.I., for instance, or the different technologies as part of our daily work. But we need those guys that can help us leverage and change into those modes and think differently than we ever had before. So, I think there’s going to be a large group of people that will be in that kind of category. And we may think of them as A.I., but they’re actually cultural change agents at the end of the day. But all of our jobs will change. And so, whether you’re a mining engineer that, you know, we used to always go in the office every day and all of a sudden we’re working at home for more often, whether, as Rob mentioned, the surveyor, well, that’s also going to change. The use of drones and the other types of technologies will change their jobs. Operators in the pit, their job will change because it’ll be not only will you have autonomous equipment, but you’ll also have the support equipment that will help them do small tasks and take a lot of the repetitive nature out of it. And so, I don’t think it’s a question of which jobs will change. I think it’s all jobs will change from exploration all the way to sales.

RD: But on that, I have a question for you there, Brad, as well. With the advent of all these different technologies, and I think you hit the nail on the head of some of the underlying technologies like A.I. and things like that, the perception I get is we still need to have a focus on the workflow from end to end of what we’re trying to actually achieve. So, I think we’ve always had traditionally a very siloed approach in mining with geologists and engineers and operators and the plant and everything else. And with these sorts of technologies and tying this together, do you see a transformation in the way that we actually tackle this as well?

BR: Sure. Yeah. That’s actually a great point, Rob, is that there’s going to be a lot more integrations of disciplines, right? What we see now already is that hydrologists in the geotechnical world. It’s not just geotechnical engineers. It’s the hydrologist, it’s the soil mechanics, engineers, etc. And what the technology will do is the technical understanding will be kind of underlined with A.I. and those technologies. The people that are going to succeed are the ones that can integrate all of those together. And it’s going to be much easier to do that because you’ll be able to ask questions in a more, not a technical question anymore, it’s actually just a philosophical question. And you’ll actually be able to get data and information from a variety of sources instead of having to be an expert in each one of those. And that’s one of the things that A.I. is going to really help us do is to integrate a lot of that information more than we ever had before.

RD: Yeah. I think we look at it from a Hexagon point of view is creating that more holistic view across those workflows with those personas. So how can we take, for instance, a drill and blast, everything from the drill hole from sampling with grade control through to the right explosives to actually blasting it, movement, fragmentation, digability, all the way through to processing and actually be able to optimise that whole workflow. So almost the full workflow optimisation, I guess, there.

BR: Yeah. So, you actually think about it. So, it comes to a point where instead of a manager trying to get information from a lot of different individuals, you’ll have people that will have all of that information at their fingertips, and they’ll be able to interrelate and interconnect that information and data much simpler. It’s more of just asking for it in the future versus finding that expert that can put it together for you. And that will change a lot. The optimisations that we’ll be able to do will be phenomenal.

NJ: I would imagine for you, Rob, a huge part of your job is actually nurturing an environment amongst your own staff to keep talent coming through, to stay ahead of the advancements we’re talking about. I mean, we’re talking about new roles being created in the industry, but that must also be incumbent on you to keep that environment fresh within your T&I team. Can you talk to that a little bit?

RD: Yeah, 100 percent. I think we, a big part of what we do is listening to our customers and where they’re heading. And the technology that they want to foster in their own organisation has a lot of similarities and parallels with what we do in the Mining division. So, we are constantly looking at how our groups can collaborate, integrate, identify these workflows. Where does the data touch throughout the whole workflow of a particular persona, let’s say? And then how can we look at optimising? And I think there is real potential for us to be truly innovative in there. And as Brad said, I think that’s going to be the next big advancement is actually once we start to think of some of these workflows in a more holistic approach, we’ll identify a lot of areas for improvement. And we continually get our people to go out to sites to find these challenges and really want to work with the clients out there to push the bounds on what we can achieve there.

NJ: So, Brad, as an educator, what do you think the most important skills that students can develop to succeed in this new mining environment?

BR: Well, they actually fit really well with what Rob just talked about, actually. I think there’s three things, three critical areas that are not necessarily technical in nature in a lot of ways. The first one is being able to communicate. Even though technology will give us the ability to do a lot of different things, if we can’t actually communicate that well, then you can’t actually make the change. And so, we’re talking about a cultural change as much as we are a technical change. And so, communications becomes even more important. In that communications, though, in this new world, is not just the conversational and written. It’s also the social media, and it’s also, you’ll be able to communicate with diagrams in ways that we’ve never been able to communicate before. So, it’s that visual communication, not just as a picture, but almost as a holographic communications that can explain things in ways that we’ve never been able to do before. So, communications becomes really critical for success in the future. And we’ve talked about the second one a couple times, and that’s the integration, integration of different data from different places, being able to ask the right questions from different groups, or sometimes even having the right vision where to go and almost having the information integrate behind that. And so that integration of big data, disciplines, and even different companies will become a critical capability that we’ll see in the future. And the technology will allow us to that in ways that we’ve never been able to do before. And I think the third one that we probably don’t understand as well a lot of times is appreciate. We have to, in our industry, the people that can appreciate things such as the real risk facing us. This is an industry that’s large and that has hazards. If we don’t appreciate the risks that we face, that can cause long-term problems that are really hard to overcome. We also have to appreciate the changes in our society. We have different priorities, or society has different priorities now than we’ve had before. We have to appreciate that that’s going to change even faster than it has in the past. And if we don’t appreciate that, then we’re always behind. And so, things like social licence to operate becomes really important. And so, we have to appreciate those changes and priorities as a society. How do we not only appreciate those changes, how do we appreciate the importance of mining? So, mining is foundational to our society as well. And if we don’t really understand how we fit in society, we don’t actually make the changes that we need to make before they’re needed. So, whether it’s the different types of materials that are needed, different ways to mine, different technologies that we can use, we need to understand and we need to appreciate what mining is and what it means to our entire civilisation. So, I think people that can do those three things— communicate, integrate, and appreciate—I think they will be extremely successful.

NJ: Thank you, Brad. Just a follow up for you, Rob. I mean, when you’re hiring new talent to the T&I team, is there specific criteria you have in mind or certain priorities in your own mind when you’re looking at people to potentially hire? What do you typically look for?

RD: Yeah. I think, well, obviously, some experience in the mining industry is a critical piece for mine so they understand and can have that backbone on where are they wanting to push the industry. In terms of the actual technology trends of where we’re kind of seeing, I think analytics is definitely a high-priority area. We’re really seeing more around the automation space, which comes with a whole ecosystem of requirements for skill sets. It’s not just about robotics. It’s not just about communications. It is also infrastructure in terms of the servers. There’s Cloud-based technology stacks. There’s so many pieces that come into a lot of this technology that I think there is no one person fits all roles. It’s about how we come together as a collective. And I think we’ve spoken about it quite a lot in this podcast already is breaking down those barriers and those silos and how we will work together in a much more seamless way is definitely something that I look for in creating and building teams on the technology front. And I think even historically, when I was working in the mining industry itself, on the mines themselves, I think that’s no different, right? We really, you’re targeting, where are you wanting to go with your mine, what technologies are you wanting to adopt, and how can you leverage and maximise the return on investment in a lot of those technologies? I think that’s still true today as it was 20 years ago. I don’t think—it’s just evolved in terms of what those roles actually are.

NJ: Right.

BR: Yeah. I think we have to really think about some different things , though, as things change. How do we actually go out and find that talent nowadays? Now, we’ve got to start thinking a little bit different in our industry, and maybe it’s doing some different things that we haven’t done in the past—sponsoring teams that do the drone racing or finding those people that are really passionate about, whether it’s the outdoors. And so maybe we start looking at groups that we may not consider miners, but they have skills that we need. And so that means that we have to reach them differently than we have in the past, and maybe some of that is reaching people that live in different places. You know, Coronavirus has allowed us to kind of drop some barriers between areas geographically. Maybe we have to broaden our search at some times. And we have to do some things that—we have to look at our packages that we offer people. There’s things that people value differently now than maybe in the past. Coronavirus is allowing us to work from home. Well, maybe that needs to be part of the work packages. Or a lot of people do want to travel. Maybe we allow people—we hire somebody that can work any place in the world, and you will pay them to live in different, fantastic parts of the world that they can visit mines or whatever. But they’re doing work for mines or companies that are located half the world away. And so, finding ways to give those people the things that they really are looking for, the packages that we offer and how we how we pay them. And we’ve kind of got to step back and relook at that differently than we have in the past.

RD: Yeah. I think a really good example of that that you’ve probably heard recently is really the convergence of the gaming world and the mining world.

BR: Yes.

RD: You know, traditionally we’ve had operators who have sat in trucks or were underground for long periods of time. And now with the remote-control technologies and things like that that are really enabling us out there, we can change the dynamic of these types of people who can operate this machinery. And they’re actually finding that that sort of background is a much better suited skill set or learning curve.

BR: I think the mining engineer of the future, maybe part of the package is whatever mining that you’re working at, you have your own personal drone that has IR and all the different types of ways to look at things, and you can see things differently. But the package includes a VR that you can stay at home and fly your personal drone around the mine whenever you want. So, there’s just enablers, different sensors now, and different tools now that we’ve never thought about before that people may actually value.

NJ: Hm. Interesting. Interesting thoughts that actually, I think, partially answer my final question to you both, which was, can the technology itself be used to leverage or to recruit new talent? Is there a way mining companies can leverage technology to recruit new talent? Brad, any thoughts on that?

BR: Yeah, absolutely. I think that some of the things that we mentioned, but I think it goes well beyond that. I think if you take a look at how we recruit right now, we still go on campus, but now we’re doing it so that it’s done remotely. But testing people in different ways that they don’t even know what they’re testing for aptitudes, you know, going to the drone races and sponsoring a team in this drone races. And maybe the winning team, maybe you hire the whole team, right, to do that, do that same sort of work only broaden it to a whole new area. So that technology is there that we can actually find people that we’ve never found before.

RD: I think, also, just how we approach people as well. You know, when I entered the mining industry, it was off a radio ad on the AM radio, whereas now today we have social-media platforms and other ways to actually really engage. And I think this comes back to the social responsibility in the way we actually engage in other groups as well is, what is mining, and how do we educate people? And I think once people understand what it is, there’s a real appetite to be able to be involved with that. So, I think leveraging that technology to actually broaden our communication out to people is really assisting in there. And I think, with the advent of new technologies, we are going to attract different people. As I mentioned before, gaming sort of backgrounds to be able to come in an operate, the people are then, they can see that there’s opportunity for them in that side of things. And then, I also think that industry plays a big part in the way that we can, from a technology point, engage in different groups. And I think we see massive change in the startup scene. We see hackathons where industry is really engaging with not just mining and other mining companies, but all sorts of different groups out in the world, from space to agriculture to everything else to see how we can adapt and adopt technology stacks over. So, I think we’ve come a long way in the last three to five years on that, and I think that’s only going to accelerate in how we can work as collaboratively within and outside of the mining industry itself.

BR: Yeah.

NJ: Gentlemen, really appreciate your insights today. Thanks so much for joining us.

BR: Great fun, Neville. Thanks for having us.

NJ: You bet. It was a pleasure. A big thank you to our guests, Rob and Brad. For more information about today’s topic, visit hexagonmining.com. And to listen to additional episodes of Mining Matters, visit hxgnspotlight.com. Thanks for tuning in.