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The fourth industrial revolution — A burning platform for mining and host communities

11 August 2021

The future of work is upon us, and with it has come changes to the way the work, the nature of work, perhaps even the value of work.

By Danielle Martin, Senior Manager, ICMM and Will Upshur, Senior Manager, Palladium.

What does the greater adoption of technology mean for the mining and metals industry workforce and the communities that host its operations? Under the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its implications for the way we work, what variables are material to the industry? In what is a complex web of inter-related issues, which are well understood, and which are not? And over the next few decades, what is the burning platform the industry must address if it is to continue to demonstrate its value to mining communities?

We have begun to explore the answers to these questions.

As part of the International Council on Mining and Metals' Skills for Our Common Future initiative, Palladium and ICMM have partnered to better understand the challenges and what is at stake as the mining and metals industry advances towards the future. Skills for our Common Future is a 15-year initiative that aims to catalyse the building of skills that support host communities to become more resilient, and better able to participate in economic opportunities and navigate and prosper through change. 

Our latest research, prepared to support the knowledge base of the Initiative from which to orient the Initiative, specifically frames the complexity of the challenge set before the mining and metals industry.  What we found is surprising. So much of the discussion of the future of work in mining centres on the coming technological advances and the ’reskilling revolution’ needed to transition and reshape the current workforce. Attention is paid to how many, and which, workers will be impacted, and sometimes to how best to support those who will lose out. But it’s argued here that while reskilling the workforce is a pressing issue, it is not mining’s most pressing challenge. There are gaps, but they can be closed, and companies have implemented appropriate strategies to address them.

Addressing the new digital age  

There is, however, a less obvious and more threatening problem on the horizon, a problem that the skills initiative was originally conceived to respond to. Increasingly digitised and efficient mining operations may decrease the direct value that mining can deliver to mining communities, and, vitally, the non-mining workforce. How much is not clear and will vary greatly by site and socio-economic context. However, reductions in the ability to deliver and realise direct benefit to mining communities may impact on community resilience. 

Ultimately, active decisions by the sector, and other stakeholders (governments, unions, etc), will influence the speed and nature of technological adoption, and how the organisational and societal disruption entailed is managed. These pressures are also exacerbating the industry’s existing challenges to attract and develop the skills critical for mining to secure and maintain societal acceptance in a technologically enabled future of work.

The real skills challenge, then, is not about technology for operating mines with greater efficiency, safety and productivity. It’s about those more human skills that are required to secure and maintain societal acceptance in a technology-enabled era. The industry has a skills gap in this regard that calls for an appropriate sense of urgency. And there is the risk that if mining doesn’t find a way to continue to deliver a social dividend, it won’t be able to attract the transferrable skills needed, as tech-enabled workers are increasingly and widely sought after. 

ICMM’s Skills for Our Common Future initiative will deepen its interrogation of this less obvious challenge in the future. How to better work with communities on the implications of the future of work and how to create meaningful collaborations across sectors to enable economic diversification independent of mining operations? What opportunities does the Fourth Industrial Revolution present for digitally enabled community resilience? How to deliver on the promise of long-term sustainable development for mining communities when we may bring fewer direct benefits from our activities?  

These are the questions that will be foundational to how the Initiative seeks to move the industry forward. We invite you to consider them while absorbing the initial high-level framing presented in our latest research.