Mining Strikes Back on Labor Challenges with Digital Technologies

Guest writer: Dan Miklovic – Research Fellow, LNS Research

Posted: August 9, 2018


Mining Strikes Back on Labor Challenges with Digital Technologies

A significant trend facing many industrial firms is the challenge with recruiting, training and retaining skilled labor. The mining industry is no exception.  In fact, it suffers a greater hardship than other industrial segments for a variety of reasons:

  • An aging workforce that is nearing retirement;
  • Mines often located in remote and inhospitable regions;
  • Dangerous working conditions;
  • Some generation groups perceive mining as low-tech and unattractive; and
  • Many workers view mining as a dying industry without a long-term future. 


All these factors combine to present the mining industry a much bigger challenge few other industries face.  As millennials and those from Generation Z (Gen Z) enter the workforce, they bring a different set of expectations, motivators, and skills than previous generations.  By 2020, millennials will comprise 50% of the global workforce and Generation Z workers will be 20%.  To survive the dramatic demographic shift the mining industry must take steps now to prepare; a critical aspect of that groundwork is a radical change in the technology.

Mining: One Dilemma, One Answer and Two Outcomes

Gen Z and millennials expect technology to be ever-present in their work environment; 45% of them say “technology” is their career of choice.  Almost a quarter of younger workers say they would leave a job that doesn’t provide a technological environment they feel is adequate.  Mining, unfortunately, has a reputation as an industry that is low tech, slow to change, and with few high-tech opportunities.  With almost a third of baby boomers already at retirement age and the rest set to fully retire over the next ten years, the industry must change now.

The only option is to adopt modern digital technology and one of the best areas to start is asset performance management (APM).  APM is a favorite use case for technology adoption, particularly the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), mobility and predictive analytics.  Fortunately, when mining companies put these advanced technologies in place, they get a multiplicative effect.  The more technologically advanced mining operations find that automation reduces the demand for labor, so they require fewer, but more highly skilled employees.  In many cases automation removes the worker from dangerous locations or allows him/her to work remotely, away from mine sites, making job opportunities more attractive.  At the same time, an employer that provides a technologically advanced workplace is more attractive to new workers, particularly those with the technical skills that these new systems demand to be effective.

Gen Z, Millennials Want and Expect Information On-Demand

Having grown up with technology like smartphones, the Internet and always-on access, Gen Z and millennial workers think and operate differently than those from previous generations.  Younger workers look to collaborate with others to solve problems, seek information for immediate use when they need it and not as learned knowledge to be retained for repetitive use.  They will not use paper documentation, expecting it to be available on tablets and phones.  They see augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) as just another presentation format and use sources like YouTube as a typical way of learning how to perform a new task.  In a Gallup poll, more than 50% of these said that they consider training and skills development as a primary motivating factor in their job.  Any mining company that expects to attract next-generation workers must provide them with modern technology comparable to what they use in their everyday lives.

Mining’s Digital Worker Tech Checklist

Yes, mining companies need to invest in technology, but they must do so wisely.  The most effective course is to follow a roadmap by putting foundational technologies in place first, and then layer on the right supporting applications and collaborative technology.  This approach allows the mining enterprise to position itself to prosper despite a tightening labor market. Specifically, mining organizations should:

  • Build the technology foundation:
    • Get IIoT-enabled equipment; buy “smart” equipment for new purchases and retrofit older equipment with IIoT-connected sensors.
    • Use historian technology to collect semi-structured data critical for analytics.
    • Apply Big Data technology for the same level of connectivity to structured and unstructured data.
    • Put in place mobility solutions so workers can get information throughout the work environment and when they’re away from work. Next-gen workers are willing to work more than just “eight hours” and view the ability to work at any time from any place a key factor in job selection.
    • Invest in AR/VR display technology so workers can interact with your systems the same way they already do in their home and leisure environments.
  • Invest in analytics, machine learning, and learning systems to coach, train and support next-gen workers. Unlike older workers that mistrust technology, younger workers expect technology to help them make the right decisions.
  • Establish a collaborative environment so workers can share and learn from peers inside the company and across industry. Being a good netizen is essential to the next gen employee, and the mining industry should embrace that need. 

Learn how progressive miners are using technology to drive productivity and profitability improvements – download the LNS Research eBook, “Getting to Mining 2020 Today: Capturing the Industry 4.0 Payoff.” 

Written By
Dan Miklovic

Dan Miklovic is a Research Fellow with LNS Research; he primarily focuses on industrial operations, asset management, and energy management, with collaborate coverage across the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), paper and packaging, mining, metals processing and other industry verticals served by LNS Research. Mr. Miklovic is a Lean Sensei with more than 40 years’ experience in manufacturing IT, R&D, engineering, and sales across several industries, and has held key positions with companies like Emerson Electric, Mallinckrodt Chemical, Weyerhaeuser, Scott Paper, Aspen Technology. He is a fellow of the Industrial Computing Society and past leader in ISA, TAPPI and SME, and held an adjunct faculty position at Central Washington University for 16 years. Mr. Miklovic holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Missouri and earned a Masters of Science in Management from the University of Southern California.

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