The Fourth Industrial Revolution has seen a flurry of technological developments sweep across industry. Be it through the increasing prevalence of smart mines or the use of Big Data, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technology, the metals and mining sector is no exception.
It is no longer controversial to claim that disruption is now the norm. It is a paradigm, rather than an aberration, that mining businesses should approach with an open and growth-orientated mindset. This is particularly so when it comes to skills and capabilities.
Navigated appropriately, the mining industry has an opportunity to help shape - and benefit from - the course of change rather than merely observing and adapting to it.
Without an appreciation of the deep changes in the industry, though, and a positive vision to match it, any approach to skills development will be incomplete and misguided. Excessive time and resources may be invested in a certain skill, for example, when in fact it may have been far more beneficial to focus on a different skill or ‘family' of skills.
According to new research by LinkedIn, by 2022, technology is expected to have wiped out 75 million jobs and created 133 million new ones globally. Technology plays an increasingly important role in our lives, professional and otherwise, and indeed confers significant advantages from a corporate point of view.
In a recent report, PwC found that businesses that master digital technology see their revenues rise and their costs go down over time. Participants in the mining sector would therefore do well to ensure that the requisite skills are encouraged and developed - and that potential shortages are addressed. In doing so, they should be mindful of the distinction between soft and hard skills.
Technical or ‘hard' skills, which can be as diverse as coding, foreign language fluency and mathematical prowess, may be defined, evaluated and measured in a relatively straightforward way. They might also be easier to teach.
In the context of digital mastery, hard skills seem like an intuitive best-fit. However, that may not always be the case and ‘soft' skills should certainly receive due regard. These include critical thinking, leadership, problem-solving, communication (verbal and otherwise), adaptability and flexibility. In a world of constant technological flux, these traits present obvious benefits for their occupants and it follows that a sustainable future would be best served by the right mix and balance of skills.
A report by the International Youth Foundation and International Finance Corporation holds that advancing talent and skills development is also an effective way of engaging young people. That can help in attracting young people to the industry, as well as retaining and nurturing the leaders of tomorrow.
Engaging young people would also enable the mining sector to continue to support the Fourth Industrial Revolution through the supply of key metals including copper and cobalt. Hailed as the materials of the future, they help power a sustainable global battery chain and underpin the booming electric vehicles market. However, it is crucial that this demand is serviced in a responsible manner.
This is precisely one of the foundational aims of the World Economic Forum's Global Battery Alliance, of which ERG is a founding member and co-chair. Through a proactive and nuanced focus on skills, hard and soft, as well as mindsets, the industry may safeguard its ability to responsibly fulfil its role in this gradual transition to a greener economy. Put simply, key metals necessitate key skills.
At the same time, the sector can look beyond metals and participants can reach beyond the confines of their own businesses. Cultivating skills is an organic and gradual process - one that involves a plethora of actors and institutions including universities, civil society, start-ups, international organisations and governments. Collaboration is emphasised in the World Economic Forum's Future of Work project.
In the context of this technological transition, opportunities around reskilling and upskilling should become increasingly mapped out and shared across businesses and industries. Through its contribution in the space of skills and capabilities, the mining sector may have an opportunity to put itself at the heart of this conversation.
Businesses could, for example, consider nurturing entrepreneurial ecosystems or ‘hubs' which serve as pockets of innovation and synergistic endeavour. This is a means of not only strengthening the sector's connection to local or regional communities and host countries but also helping deliver sustainable, diversified growth opportunities.
As ERG has seen with its own efforts, supporting entrepreneurship can also serve as a powerful way of addressing skills gaps as it encompasses a wide range of capabilities that spans the ‘soft' and ‘hard' spectrum. For example, this is very much part of the focus of Digital Kazakhstan, a national digital infrastructure programme, of which ERG is a prominent supporter and driver. ERG recently established a digital start-up venture capital fund at the Astana International Financial Centre.
For a mining business to invest in its own talent pool and pipeline is both necessary and beneficial, but opportunities and value may also be found in joining wider conversations and initiatives that can help address skills gaps and nourish the creation of disruptive ideas that could strengthen the industry in the long run.