ENVIRONMENT

West Africa emerges as mining education hub

Mining in the future will require a broader range of transferrable skills to explore for, develop and refine the critical minerals which the world needs.

David Whitehouse
 Tech talent will be critical in an increasingly automated mining world

Tech talent will be critical in an increasingly automated mining world

Traditional centres of mining education, such as South Africa and the UK, risk being left behind in the race to supply the needed expertise. 

A paper from PwC in June argues that tech talent will be critical in an increasingly automated, digitised, AI-enabled mining world. Lots of industries need those skills, and many of the young people who have them don't see mining as an attractive option. A survey by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council of Canada found that 70% of 15-30 year-olds will probably or definitely not consider a career in mining, the highest negative proportion for any industry. PwC's survey found that two-thirds of mining CEOs believe that skill shortages will have a large or very large impact on profitability over the next ten years.

West African expertise provides a possible solution. Ghana is overtaking South Africa as a centre of mining education, said Gavin Hilson, professor of sustainability in business at the UK's University of Surrey. South African mining schools have been scaling back their courses, and the offer from Camborne School of Mines in the UK is "unrecognisable" compared with 20 years ago, he said.

Ghana regained its position as Africa's top gold producer after it overtook South Africa with a 32% increase in production in 2022. Manganese, bauxite and diamonds are also exploited. The country's higher education system has shown itself capable of producing "world-class mining engineering," and companies are scooping up their graduates, Hilson said. The University of Mines and Technology (UMT) in Tarkwa, which has been supplying staff for the ministry of mines in Sierra Leone, has emerged as an "epicentre of mining education." The fact that majors such as Anglogold Ashanti and Gold Fields operate in the country will lead to Ghanaian skills being disseminated globally, Hilson added. 

Atlantic Lithium is on track to become Ghana's first lithium producer following the publication of its definitive feasibility study for the Ewoyaa project in June. Executive chairman Neil Herbert expects peak project employment of over 800 people, and says the quality of Ghana's mining education means they will be overwhelmingly from within the country. "There's no need to bring people in," Herbert said.

Eroding knowledge base

South Africa should not be written off. The country remains a "service centre for African mining" which is supplying talent to jurisdictions across the region, said Michael Quinert, chairman of West Wits Mining which has a gold project in Witwatersrand. Most mines in Africa have key staff come from South Africa, and virtually all the staff used by West Wits are local, Quinert said. 

Still, Quinert said, the Witwatersrand is a largely predictable ore body which has been well understood by geologists since about 1920. Shafts have even been sunk there in the past without the need for any prior testing. Accumulated experience puts a premium on local knowledge, and Quinert points to Australian geologists who have come to the Wits and found themselves "spinning tyres in the dirt."

Others suspect that the recent dearth of new exploration in the country makes South Africa's role as a centre of mining education hard to sustain. The heyday of South African mining occurred under apartheid, with one consequence being that the normal generational transfer of skills and knowledge was disrupted. Exploration in South Africa in recent years has been held back by factors such as the lack of a functional online cadastre, concerns about reliability of power supply and perceptions of "state capture" as detailed in the judicial commission's Zondo report into corruption during the presidency of Jacob Zuma.

The country's mining expertise base has been steadily eroded, said Tony Harwood, CEO of Montero Mining. Harwood, based in Johannesburg, has 40 years of experience as an economic geologist but has not been involved in South African mining for decades. Montero is now focused on projects in Chile.

South Africa's universities in the 1980s and 1990s had strong mining departments, and the country still has a "reasonable" amount of mining expertise, but this is now focused on running existing mining operations rather than exploration, Harwood said. People with "London cabbie" type knowledge of South Africa's gold fields have now largely retired, he added.

That picture is paralleled in the UK. Cornish mineworkers from the Camborne School of Mines, established in 1888, were among South Africa's mining pioneers. Today, Camborne is unable to meet even modest UK needs. The UK Mining Education Forum (UKMEF) has estimated that at least 48 mining engineering and 18 mineral processing graduates are needed each year to sustain the UK industry, but says there is a significant shortfall. Of the 1,237 registered UK mining and mineral processing engineers, 80% are aged over 50, with 39% over 66, UKMEF says.

A survey by the World Economic Forum in 2020 found that 57% of surveyed mining companies saw the inability to attract specialised talent as the biggest barrier to the adoption of new technology. Researchers led by Jessica Smith at the Colorado School of Mines argue that mining and other natural resource industries will in future engineers who can take a "sociotechnical" approach. These multi-skilled technicians will need to reconcile the need for critical minerals with the rights of the indigenous communities where those minerals are located. Women represent a pool of talent which can't continue to be ignored. The International Labour Organisation says that only 14% of mining jobs worldwide are held by women.

Learning on the Job

Segun Lawson is chief executive of gold miner Thor Explorations, which operates in Nigeria and Senegal. Many of Thor's technical department heads, such as its chief surveyor and its chief metallurgist, were educated in Ghana. The company has typically hired Ghana-educated specialists with between five and ten years of work experience, who have benefitted from having a year of work experience included in their degree studies. They have successfully been able to transfer skills and knowledge to Nigerian staff, Lawson said. "We've learned a lot from Ghana," which is already an "education hub for the industry."

In Senegal, the company has an entirely local team, and Lawson is "very happy with their level of competence. The company's plans for a second mine in Senegal mean that more hires in the country will be needed. The existence of mining education clusters in the region have been crucial for Thor's development, Lawson said. The high costs of flying in graduates from the UK or Australia would have been "very difficult" for a small company such as Thor to meet.

Lawson himself studied geology at Imperial College London before moving into strategy consultancy and then corporate finance. Today, he would advise young Nigerians interested in mining to consider Ghana as a place to study. Nigeria does not have the number of mines that would be needed to give local field experience to students. Classroom learning needs to be combined with practical experience, and the "more transfer of knowledge that takes place in the field the better." Prospects for Nigeria being able to educate its own miners, he said, depend on the speed with which the local sector develops and how many mines can be built.

David Whitehouse is a freelance journalist in Paris.

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