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Help Wanted: 100,000 Workers Needed to Sustain Canada's Modern Mining Industry

A conversation with Ryan Montpellier, Executive Director at Canada's Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR)

Canada's mining sector is facing an uphill battle. Almost half of the present workforce is over 45 years of age and 60,000 people will retire in the next decade. Another 25,000 to 30,000 people will leave for other reasons. As a result, almost 100,000 new workers will be needed over the next 10 years to meet sector labour supply requirements.

Geologists prospecting at Amaruq

Ryan Montpellier, Executive Director at Canada's Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), has been identifying and addressing human resources and labour market challenges in the Canadian mining industry for over a decade. He leads a team of specialists at MiHR who conduct research and design tools and programs to support the mining industry and help companies attract and retain workers in the sector.

"It is no longer a white male dominated sector operating on brute force," Montpellier said, "The people we will see working at mines 10 years from now will look very different. The mining sector has and is evolving. Equipment is operated from the surface, or remotely, or autonomously. Those things are going to be key for us in attracting a more diverse workforce."

Technology, diversity, and inclusion are dominant forces shaping the next generation of workers in the mining sector, an industry that has traditionally focussed on hiring young men. Women, immigrants and Indigenous people are vastly underrepresented in the sector. Women, for example, make up around 49 percent of the Canadian labour market but only 17 percent of the mining workforce. Younger people and new Canadians tend to be drawn to urban areas and are less exposed to mining jobs in rural areas. Together, misconceptions, outdated traditions, unconscious bias, Canada's population, and the remote nature of mining create a tight labor market for mining companies to draw from.

Technology only part of the solution

Over the last decade, said Montpellier, MiHR has observed a significant shift by mining companies to invest in capital, in bigger equipment, and more sophisticated technology to reduce their dependence on labour.

"When new technologies are introduced, we see a significant shift in the level and the types of skills needed in the mining industry," said Montpellier, "The number of people, for example, with a university degree working in the mining sector has doubled in the last 15 years."

Mining companies are hiring more skilled workers to operate this sophisticated technology, employing more computer scientists, data analysts, programmers, engineers and technologists of all disciplines than ever before. Lower-skilled labourers will still be required but MiHR has documented an increase in highly skilled individuals.

"What occupations are more vulnerable?" said Montpellier, "Some workers are more at risk of being displaced, and more of the entry level positions require minimal post-secondary education. The heavy equipment operators, mine labourers, and machinery operators may be the ones that are potentially more easily displaced."

Leaky pipeline

The evolution of mining has created a vast new array of high-paying jobs, particularly for skilled technicians. These technicians do not necessarily need to operate heavy machinery with hands-on physical strength but can operate machinery remotely from an office environment suitable for a diversity of workers. However, an outdated image of mining remains a significant barrier when trying to attract new talent.

At the elementary and secondary school levels, few children name mining as their first-choice career path. At the post-secondary level, enrollment is heavily influenced by the cyclical "boom and bust" nature of the industry.

"When times are good, we've seen a direct correlation between enrolment patterns in mining-related post-secondary programs such as mining engineering, earth sciences, geoscience-related programs, and mining technology programs," said Montpellier, "But as the industry goes through different cycles, so does enrolment. The last four or five years have been tough times for the mining industry and we've seen numerous programs struggle with enrolment."

When the industry rebounds and enters a "boom" period, mining companies find that the new graduates are not there. MiHR and others are looking at ways to better support a more consistent pipeline, rather than losing entire cohorts of students who abandon their mining qualification when they are unable to find work after graduation. To support co-ops throughout the educational cycle, MiHR's Gearing Up program is providing a wage subsidy up to $7,000 to mining employers who create new work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities for students in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) or business programs. These experiential learning opportunities can include co-ops, internships, field placements, applied projects, capstone projects or case competitions.

Keeping people

"The mining industry has unique challenges with retention," said Montpellier, "In some cases, companies have a phenomenal record and turnover rates are extremely low, and others tend to have a much, much higher problem with retention for key groups within their workforce."

Where mines are located near urban areas that have built up around mining operations, like Timmins in Ontario or Val d'Or in Quebec, workers can live and work in the same town. These mining operations tend to have high retention rates. At remote operations, where workers fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) every few weeks, MiHR research has found that turnover rates at those mine sites are significantly higher.

MiHR has also identified that women are twice as likely to leave the sector compared to men, and that significant barriers exist in mining when it comes to attracting, recruiting, and retaining under-represented groups, including women, Indigenous people, and new Canadians. Montpellier, who has worked in the industry for about 15 years, said he has seen a huge increase in mining companies trying to build more inclusive workplaces by developing diversity policies, changing how they recruit, develop and promote workers, to help build a more diverse mining industry.

"We haven't necessarily reaped all the benefits from that," said Montpellier, "It's important to note that diversity is something that takes time, but I have seen a significant amount of effort by mining companies compared to 10 years ago."

Indigenous participation

Mining is one of the largest employers of Indigenous people in Canada, employing about 15,000 Indigenous workersFootnote 1. This represents just over seven percent of the total mining workforce, which is 50 per cent higher that the wider Canadian labour market which is about four per cent.

"The mining sector has been at the forefront of impact benefit agreements (IBAs)," said Montpellier, "They've been on the frontlines of economic reconciliation, and for many Indigenous communities, there is a real interest in participating in the mining industry in a meaningful way to help their community and their members move out of poverty."

MiHR has observed more and more mining companies involving local Indigenous communities in mining operations and moving beyond employment into procurement from Indigenous businesses in their supply chains and, in some cases, subsidiaries or ownership positions in mining operations. However, said Montpellier, there is still significant work to be done.

Tools and Resources

The research team at MiHR are working to better understand the barriers to attract, recruit, and retain underrepresented groups in mining. MiHR have developed several toolkits, recommendations, and guides to help companies evolve to be more diverse and inclusive. Including the whole labor market is essential to help the mining industry access a deeper pool of talent to fill the 100,000 positions that will become available over the next decade.

"A few years ago, we published our Strengthening Mining's Talent Alloy series, which was a series of four reports that looked specifically at attracting or identifying unique barriers to participation for women, Indigenous people, and new Canadians, and what unique programs could be in place to help address and increase the participation of those underrepresented groups," said Montpellier.

Find out more about MiHR programs: (links)

  • Gender Equity in Mining Works 'GEM Works' is helping the mining industry address and mitigate the unintended systemic barriers that exist for women in mining workplaces.
  • Mining Essentials, an essential skills and work-readiness training program co-developed by MiHR and the Assembly of First Nations. The pre-employment program for Indigenous youth to help them transition into careers in the mining industry.
  • Mining Professional Immigrant Network (M-PIN), helping new Canadians in Ontario network with like-minded professionals in the mining sector and transition into meaningful roles they have trained for in their own home country.
  • ENSEMBLE: The Mining Diversity Network, an online portal that brings hundreds of people together to share best practices, ask questions, talk about subjects like diversity and inclusion, and learn from their peers.
MiHR's definition of the mining industry is different than other organizations.

MiHR's definition of the mining industry is different than other organizations. MiHR excludes certain downstream manufacturing and indirect mining employment, resulting in lower employment estimates.