Digital Mining – Unlocking the talents of the incoming generation

There are several shifts taking place in mining at the moment, ranging from technological advances, growing demand for new minerals and new pressures stemming from the move to a low carbon economy.

Mines are often located in remote areas away from specialised skills.  Running these mines can require a high level of automation and the ability to support the operation remotely.  This is undoubtedly one driver for digitisation projects.

Yet, another more subtle shift is taking place that is sometimes overlooked.  This is the generational shift taking place as experienced people retire and the new generation of digital savvy mineworkers enters the industry.

While mining is undergoing these changes, technology also moves forward at a breath-taking pace.  The current generation of mining professionals grew up in a world of mobile devices, social media interaction and ubiquitous information.  The next generation will embrace artificial intelligence and augmented reality.  They prefer communicating with instant messaging rather than e-mail; and will be familiar with unprecedented levels of economic and political disruption amplified by easy access to social media.

Generation Theory

In their book, “Mind the Gap”, Graeme Codrington and Sue Grant-Marshall explain the concept of Generation theory.  People born between the 1980s and 2000 are referred to as “Generation Y”, also known as “Millennials”.  This group is immediately followed by people born after 2000, commonly referred to as Generation Z.  Generation Z is sometimes described as the “iFacebook” or, more recently, the “iMeta” generation.  

Generation theory maintains that our most important values are formed during early childhood and teenage years and that these remain relatively constant during adult life.  Therefore, the new workforce’s mindsets, perceptions, attitudes, and opinions have already been formed in a digital world. 

Millennials were born when the Sony Walkman was invented, DNA fingerprinting became possible, video games emerged, and mobile phones and laptop computers were only just becoming common.  Millennials are now in the prime of their career, making up the bulk of middle and senior decision-makers in the mining industry. 

The iFacebook or iMeta Generation, in contrast, have grown up with broadband connectivity, smartphones, social media, “apps”, streaming TV, alternative energy, and virtual reality.  These people are already entering the industrial workforce as artisans, graduates or interns into entry-level roles. 

Understanding generational theory is vital for leaders of mining companies.  While it is never wise to over-generalise, it is nevertheless still important to consider the time in which peoples core values were formed.  These values will strongly influence their behaviour and effectiveness in the workplace. All great organisations rely on attracting the best people. Therefore, it is critical to frame a career in mining correctly and appropriate for the new generation.  Pictures of dirty, heavy industrial machinery digging coal do not necessarily resonate with a generation that has a well-developed awareness of environmental and social responsibility.

The reality is that mining is a technologically advanced industry, and it can be a very fulfilling and stimulating environment in which to work.  Digital technologies, in particular, will appeal to Generation Y/Z, and there is plenty of need for advanced digital skills.  In contrast to the manual, labour-intensive process of the 1970s, a modern mine also has a high level of automation.  Work no longer requires as much physical presence, and machinery can even be controlled from remote control centres hundreds or thousands of km from the rock face.

Technology also improves occupational health and safety conditions in mines for those on-site.  Process operators can avoid highly hazardous conditions by controlling equipment at a safe distance.   The digital technologies behind this type of remote automation are sophisticated and will demand the best engineering,  automation and data processing skills to develop and maintain.

Surveying Attitudes – Generations Y and Z

Deloitte recently published their “2021 Global Millennial and Gen Z survey”.  The recent impact of Covid 19 and lockdowns have curtailed the activities of everyone. However, the move to remote and online work has at the same time given Generation Y/Z a new avenue to pursue their passions.    As work returns to pre-pandemic levels, many people categorised as Generation Y and Z will be seeking employers better aligned to their desire for meaningful and flexible work. 

According to Deloitte’s survey, flexibility and adaptability in the workplace are the most valued characteristics for the new environment, followed by creativity and technological savvy.  Empathy, critical thinking, curiosity/growth mindset, values, inclusiveness and courage to challenge the status quo were also significant factors. 

Of particular relevance to mining, Generations Y / Z have a well-developed sense of responsibility towards solving the problems of climate change and environmental impact.  Mining companies have a major role to play as effective stewards of the environment. Progressive policies in this regard could undoubtedly be a selling point to attract the best Generation Y/Z talent wanting to do their part.

Technology as an enabler

Technology can be used to improve operational efficiency and productivity in mines.  In concert with other industries, mines are embarking on digital transformation initiatives that innovate with technology to meet the business’s changing demands.  New devices coupled with cloud-based analytics and artificial intelligence will change the way people work.  These technologies can also enhance safety, reduce risk, and improve occupational health management in the workplace.

Generations Y / Z will be very open to using these new technologies. They are, in fact, going to demand it.  Excellent IT systems need to be in place as an enabler.  In the future, people at the workplace will need to be empowered with innovative, context-relevant information that helps them in their jobs.  Access to the corporate systems must be possible using familiar mobile devices and apps that are second nature to Generations Y and Z. And the corporate apps need to deliver value for the way people work and less about the business process.  The new requirement is for intelligent, dynamic, personalised and responsive apps that mimic the consumer apps they are used to.

New jobs, many of which are not yet defined, will emerge for this demanding digital environment.  Attracting the right technical skills will be vital to success.   Some of these new roles don’t fully exist yet and include data science, modelling, predictive techniques, decision support, automation and many more.  Mining companies will need to attract the right skills into their organisation and partner with companies with proven expertise and the specialised skills necessary to implement a complex technology-led transformation.

Adapt IT has been working with mining companies for many years, focused on improving safety and reducing risk. Initially, we worked on digitising the energy isolation and permit to work processes.   We are leveraging this experience to embark on a new digital transformation journey with our customers keen to journey with us. We are excited about some of the software based innovations that we are working on to further reduce safety-related risk and to improve productivity and operational excellence in mines. 

For more information

Adapt IT Manufacturing provides digital solutions that enhance safety performance and operational excellence to help industrial companies achieve more. 

Further reading

  1. Codrington Graeme and Grant-Marshall Sue, Mind the Gap, Penguin Books South Africa (Pty) Ltd, 2011
  2. Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey   https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/2021-deloitte-global-millennial-survey-report.pdf

For more information on how IntelliPERMIT and OpSUITE can help you better manage your process safety please contact the team at Adapt IT.

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