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The Drift: Creativity needed to draw new talent to mining: experts

Employers encouraged to recruit people with disabilities to access a broader worker pool
NORCAT in Sudbury is known globally for its blended learning that includes virtual reality, simulation training, and in-class competency training. (File photo)

It's dirty and it's dangerous.

That's the top perceived reason youth today don’t want a career in mining, according to Jason Bubba, chief operating officer at the NORCAT innovation centre in Sudbury.

Yet, attracting youth to the industry will be essential to replacing workers who are leaving the sector in droves and creating a massive skills gap that’s predicted to get worse.

To draw in new workers, industry stakeholders must engage youth to learn what they find interesting and make mining more relatable, Bubba said.

“The ways and means in which we mine is much cleaner, more automated, much safer, more environmentally friendly than it ever has been before,” he said during the CIM's 2022 Maintenance, Engineering and Reliablility/Mine Operators (MEMO) Conference, being held at Science North in Sudbury Sept. 18-21.

“We really need to tell these stories to our youth, educate them that our mines are great places to work, that their daily activities can make a real impact in the world around them, and that all those fun gadgets that they use on a daily basis are only possible because of mining."

Citing a recent Gallup survey performed for Amazon, Bubba said that a majority of workers aged 18 to 24 “ranked learning new skills as the third most important perk when evaluating new job opportunities.”

It's also important to train existing workers in new techniques and technologies so their skills keep up with evolving changes in the workplace, he added.

More frequently, companies have been turning to blended training models of learning, introducing things like remote training, simulation, or virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) to deliver those lessons.

“Now, we’re not trying to replace traditional training methods here,” he emphasized.

“What we want to do is create a structured blended training model with the organization that includes traditional instructor-led training, e-learning on portable devices, simulation, AR/VR, and in-the-field practical training.”

This approach ensures that workers across the organization are given the same opportunities for upskilling. For example, an instructor in Sudbury could be engaging digitally with workers in Thunder Bay, hundreds of kilometres away.

As an added benefit, equipment doesn't have to be shipped to training centres, so it stays in the field, and workers can learn from a multitude of scenarios they wouldn’t be able to access in real life.

"It's now possible to effectively work in groups, collaborating in an interactive, digital training ground. True-to-life scenarios are played out in a virtual world with participants who are in various locations,” Bubba said.

“And this isn't the future of technology. This is currently being used in training applications now, around the world and here in Northern Ontario."

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Beyond how they're hiring and training, however, J.C. Doyle encourages employers to think about who they're hiring.

Too often, he said, people with disabilities — a demographic that's expected to reach 25 per cent of people over the age of 15 by 2040 — are overlooked during the hiring process because of existing attitudes and misconceptions.

As such, employers are missing out on a vast and valuable talent pool.

Doyle is an inclusion and diversity specialist with the Ontario Disabilities Employment Network (ODEN), a network of employment service providers across the province who help those with disabilities find work.

“Disability really doesn't discriminate. It crosses all boundaries, race, religion, culture, socioeconomic status,” Doyle said. “It's the largest growing minority that any one of us can join at any given time, and most of us will likely join this at one point or another as we age.”

There's a pervasive attitude that people with disabilities have poor performance and attendance records, and that turnover is higher. Doyle said that's simply untrue.

Data shows that people with disabilities have a strong commitment to work and are five times more likely to remain on the job than non-disabled workers.

They also take fewer chances and more often stick to routines. That means they tend to work more safely, Doyle said.

"They're not going to get up on a rolling chair and reach for that coffee urn on the top shelf, for example, or climb up to the top rung of the ladder — all things we know we shouldn't do,” he said.

“Accidents happen when shortcuts are taken, when people are not properly trained, or they waver from the training. People who have a disability have learned to navigate the road carefully, they take less chances, and more often follow the training and stick to routines.”

Doyle said changing attitudes in the workplace needs to come from the top, and it can start by adjusting hiring practices.

Look at a candidate's skills and how they can benefit the company, rather than seeking out an ideal or traditional candidate, he advised. What are the soft skills and technical skills for the position, and what can be learned on the job?

“A lot of this development is going to be on the job, which is the way many of us have gotten to our positions today as well,” he said. “And just ask yourself what requirements you're asking for that are not actually needed to perform the job.”

He also advises that employers maintain high expectations for a role, because they often get lowered for employees with a disability, "which doesn't help anyone.”

In the mining industry's efforts to engage the next generation of workers, Doyle advised companies to include students who have disabilities in internships, mentorship programs, co-ops and summer jobs, and establish connections with service providers that serve people with disabilities.

A good example of a mining company doing recruitment the right way is Vale's Brazil-based operations, he said.

In 2008, the miner had 208 professionals with disabilities working for them; by 2017, that had increased to 1,700 employees with disabilities, who were employed in a wide range of positions, Doyle said.

The company boosted those numbers through an internal campaign that simply spread, by word-of-mouth, its intention to seek out and hire more employees with disabilities.

“They had a ton of applications come in,” Doyle said. "You can imagine this powerful message that this had on the workplace culture at Vale, making it a safe and welcoming environment for people who have disabilities, their family members, and those people that they are connected to."