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The race for talent in the mining industry - the case of copper

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By Michael Goodsite, Adele Seymon

· 6 min read

The global effort to decarbonize critical systems and electrify society is a pressing issue that requires urgent attention. The transition to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, has gained significant momentum in recent years, but the success of this transition depends heavily on the availability of copper and other resources.

Copper is an essential component of the electrical grid, as well as electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. In fact, copper is used in most renewable energy technologies, making it a critical resource for the transition to a low-carbon future.

Meeting the growing demand for copper is not a simple task. It requires a range of talents and expertise to get to the copper without harming the environment more than the copper ultimately helps it, as a material utilized in renewable energy sources.

Demand for Talent

There are several key areas where talent is required to meet the demand for copper and drive the transition to renewable energy:

  1. Mining and processing: Copper is primarily mined in a few key regions, such as Chile, Australia, and other places. Mining operations require skilled workers who can incorporate new and more sustainable methods, operate heavy equipment, and ensure the safety of workers and the environment. Processing copper ore into usable metal requires ore characterization, chemical, and metallurgical expertise. Finding copper requires geological expertise. Obtaining the necessary environmental and other approvals requires regulatory and technical expertise across a number of disciplines.
  2. Engineering and design: The design and construction of renewable energy infrastructure, such as wind turbines and solar panels, requires engineering expertise. Engineers are needed to develop new technologies and optimize existing ones to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Chemical engineers are needed to continue to work on substitutes for copper, efficiencies, and recovery of copper to re-use a greater portion than now. Mining engineers are evolving as sustainability in mining is evolving.
  3. Supply chain management: As demand for copper grows, so does the complexity of the supply chain. Supply chain managers are needed to ensure that copper is sourced ethically and sustainably and that it is transported efficiently to where it is needed. The market around it is needed. What is sustainable copper and how is this verified, traced, and priced?
  4. Innovation and research: Innovation and research are critical to developing new technologies and improving existing ones. Researchers are needed to explore new materials and production methods that can reduce the use of copper or increase its efficiency in renewable energy technologies or minimize water use across the system. Not only technically-focused researchers are needed, but also those with expertise across social sciences and humanities.

There is no doubt that meeting the growing demand for copper will require a significant amount of talent and expertise. However, there are potential talent gaps that could hinder the transition to renewable energy.

The mining industry may not be seen as an attractive career option for many young people. This is partly due to the perception that mining is a dirty and dangerous industry and that there is uncertainty in the continuity of employment through boom-bust cycles. It may also be due to a lack of awareness about the industry and the potential career paths it offers since many students have not had the opportunity to learn about earth sciences or resource demands in their school education.

Another issue is that the demand for talent in the renewable energy sector is rapidly increasing, while the numbers able to be employed are decreasing. This is leading to competition for talent. This competition drives up salaries, making it more difficult for the mining industry to attract and retain talent, especially as skill sets are applicable to other sectors.

Addressing the Gap

The potential talent gap must be addressed now to best ensure that the transition to renewable energy can proceed as quickly and efficiently as possible. This requires a range of actions, including:

  1. Raising awareness: Mining companies and industry associations must continue to work to raise awareness about the mining industry and the career opportunities it offers. This can be done through educational programs, job fairs, and outreach to schools, since by the time many start their studies, they have already decided on their preferred course of study. Globally there are few students choosing mining. Universities cannot address this alone; mining must be demonstrated to be part of the solution for global decarbonization and companies must exemplify through their actions to be attractive workplaces in a hyper-competitive market for the demographically shrinking talent pool. Countries and companies must encourage small mining programs to work together - globally if needed - in a post-COVID world to provide a new type of education that prepares graduates from broad disciplines across a university to enter the sector.
  2. Investing in training: Mining companies should continue to invest in training programs to develop the skills and expertise needed to meet the demand for copper. This could include apprenticeships, internships, continuing education programs, or specialized programs to move across sectors.
  3. Collaborating with other industries: Collaboration between the mining industry and other industries, such as renewable energy and engineering, can help to bridge the talent gap and ensure that the necessary expertise is available. The Australian Cooperative Research Centre program provides an instrument for this and the Copper for Tomorrow CRC Bid is an example of leveraging such an instrument to provide the cross-sector collaborative research and innovation required.
  4. Focusing on diversity and inclusion: The mining industry has traditionally been male-dominated and has not always been welcoming to people from diverse backgrounds. While much progress has been made on gender equity and diversity issues as well as respect for the communities that companies operate in, continuing to focus on diversity and inclusion and positive engagement with communities will help to attract a wider range of talent to the industry.

The Way Ahead

In conclusion, the demand for copper is growing more rapidly as the world transitions to renewable energy than can be met without paradoxically placing greater stress on the environment and societies around the mines through increased energy and water demand.

Meeting this demand requires a range of talent and expertise to address the challenges that will enable the transition to a more sustainable future. Mining can only effectively be part of the solution if the talent is there to address the challenges and leverage opportunities once they are found. As citizens, we must accept that with the current state-of-the-art technology, moving to a decarbonized society requires materials that must be mined, and we all must do our part to encourage talents to make a positive difference in the sector while continuing to ensure that mining companies and those in their value chain live up to the sustainability and other obligations society expects of them.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Michael Evan Goodsite CPEng, EngExec, PhD is Professor of Civil- and Environmental Engineering, Pro Vice-Chancellor at Energy Futures, and Director of The Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Resources (ISER) at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He is the bid sponsor and interim research director of the Copper for Tomorrow CRC Bid. 

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Adele Seymons is the Interim CEO of the Copper for Tomorrow CRC bid and CEO & Founder of Deep Green R&D Solutions. She has significant experience in developing consortiums that effectively deliver on critical industry challenges. If successfully funded, the Copper for Tomorrow CRC will deliver research, education, and knowledge dissemination to transform the industry into a leading supplier of green copper to minimise impact while adding value to the community.

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