From the mechanisation of underground coal mining in the 1950s to the recent introduction of autonomous haul trucks, the mining industry has always been a rapidly changing sector, pushing the boundaries of innovation and technology.

As companies move towards building intelligent mining operations with higher levels of automation, the benefits of increased efficiency, output and safety are apparent – but what are the potential downsides?

At least some job losses will be inevitable and the resources sector won’t be the only industry to be affected by a changing technological world, but how will workers, training programs and regional towns cope with this shifting landscape?

CFMEU Mining & Energy National Research Director Peter Colley said at the early stages of automation there had been a lot of jobs created, although there was still an open question as to how much of that would remain once automation and remote operations became standardised.

“Even if job numbers hold up, the composition will change a lot, for example, from truck driving to IT work,” he said.

“The location of the jobs also changes – less onsite and more in towns or cities – possibly in other states or countries.”

Companies like Rio Tinto and BHP have maintained their workers will be given the opportunity to learn new skills and won’t be made redundant by new technologies, however, Mr Colley said it was a utopian view to think most truck drivers would become higher technology workers.

“All job restructuring is painful for the individuals concerned, so it will not be a smooth transition,” he said.

While concerned about potential job losses through restructuring, Mr Colley said the biggest impact on workers over the last decade had been a shift towards an increase in casual employment and reduced rates of pay.

“We now have over one third of the industry without any security of employment, any holidays or sick pay and they are being paid less – often a third less – than permanent

workers doing the same job,” he said.

“A lot of the benefits of technology in the 1950s and 1960s were shared with workers in the form of better jobs and higher wages.

“But in this current round there seems to be less sharing of the benefits.”

New breed of workforce

Australian Industry Group WA State Manager Kristian Stratton said there were few negatives to bringing in automation, but was concerned about the pace at which it was being brought in, and whether there were enough skilled workers available.

“In general, we have to make sure we have a younger workforce being developed through apprenticeships and traineeships which are more relevant to what a highly automated minesite might look like,” he said.

“The mining sector is a very innovative sector and is working well with some of the TAFE systems, but there are long-term training processes and apprenticeship systems that generally are a bit slower to change.

“The apprenticeship system is a good system throughout Australia, but it’s probably not future-proofed for what innovative worksites are looking for.

“It’s very di cult to do – the jobs that are here may be very different in three to four years’ time and, generally, apprenticeship programs are three to four years long.”

Mr Stratton said attributes like problem solving and critical thinking, which were often seen as ‘soft skills’, would be critical for the new breed of workforce.

“Moving forward it’s about developing situational-based and individual training within a company and showing people what the future jobs look like,” he said.

“It’s about taking people on a journey – it can sometimes be a scary thing to change what you’ve been doing for a long period of time and start doing something completely different.

“Some are very set in their own ways and may not be suited to the way things work, but I think generally people are very excited about the opportunities and where things are heading.”

Lifelong learning

There is broad consensus that the mining sector has in recent times failed to raise awareness of its industries and opportunities amongst young Australians.

Despite generous starting salaries, fewer high school and university students are considering a career in mining.

West Australian School of Mines (WASM) Director Professor Sam Spearing confirmed the number of people studying in the resources industry had been down for a number of years.

“I think we’ve turned the trend around now and they will start to increase again, but we’ve had a very tough several years,” he said.

“Mainly because of the public perception that mining is dirty, dark and dangerous; but nothing could be further from the truth.

“It’s going to be one of the most technically advanced industries around.”

As technology within the industry moves ahead at a rapid speed, and with more people potentially needing training, Dr Spearing said WASM was reviewing all the content of its programs to bring them up to date.

“Lifelong learning is going to be critical for not just mining, but all industries, because we are so technology-driven now,” he said.

“The changes are happening so quickly that I think people are going to have to keep going back to TAFE or university to learn new skills.

“As part of this issue of lifelong learning, we are looking very seriously with TAFE at creating associate degrees so people can go into TAFE, get an advanced engineering diploma, possibly get an associate degree and then move onto university.

“So, there’s a line for not only school leavers, but the more mature student who could up-skill more easily than they have in the past.”

Regional towns to feel the pinch

As more jobs move from the country to the city there are concerns regional towns will be left in the dirt if they fail to diversify their economies.

Town of Port Hedland Mayor Camilo Blanco said the Pilbara community needed to start implementing strategies to change that shift and entice more people back to the area.

“It is inevitable we are going to lose jobs to automation and robotics, so we need to diversify our economy and attract new industries and new jobs,” he said.

“As a local government we are looking at a study to find out what it is going to cost us to implement the core infrastructure which will allow Port Hedland to have the fastest internet in the world.

“By achieving that goal we will create a whole new industry that will be run out of Port Hedland and allow people to tap into that market and build business around that infrastructure.

“In America, cities have implemented this strategy when industry has been lost and it has transformed the place.”

Rather than fight against a changing industry, Mr Blanco said the community of Port Hedland should embrace what is to come.

“Whichever way mining may be going, we need to support it, because it is in the national interest,” he said.

Image: Supplied by Minerals Council of Australia