Kevin Sabin, president of the UK mining trade association ABMEC and Group Managing Director of Brownlee Cale, a specialist recruitment agency for the construction, civil engineering, facilities management and mining industries, acknowledged that a widening skills gap is storing up problems for mining businesses.
"We need to bring new people into mining," Sabin said, noting that the successful resurgence of the UK mining industry, a key theme of this year's UK Mining Conference, depends on a robust talent pipeline of geologists, mining engineers and metallurgists.
A global survey by consulting firm McKinsey published in February 2023 found 70% of its 15- to 30-year-old respondents said that they "definitely wouldn't" or "probably wouldn't" consider working in the mining industry, ranking the sector as the least popular career choice for all those surveyed - behind oil and gas.
Over the past two decades, undergraduate mining numbers have tended to lag the commodities cycle by around two years. In the last cycle, however, enrolment of mining students decoupled from the industry's performance and numbers have dropped off in the UK, US and Australia.
Today, there are no undergraduate mining engineering courses offered by UK higher education institutions after the Camborne School of Mines (CSM), which is part of the University of Exeter and was the last UK provider to offer such a course, was forced to pause its mining engineering undergraduate degree programme in 2020, due to low take-up of places.
This year will see the final cohort of undergraduates - four students with a 50:50 male-female gender split - graduate with a degree in mining engineering from the CSM.
Professor Patrick Foster, Associate Professor in Mine Safety and Director of the CSM, blamed perceptions held by "young people" that the mining industry is "dirty, dangerous and old fashioned".
"When people see the mining industry, they tend to see it when it goes wrong," he said.
"Mining doesn't tend to appeal to a current generation of students who are concerned about our planet's future and environment. Those concerns may not be totally unfounded, however the industry has made significant strides in recent years to address these issues," he added.
Lack of flexibility
Foster said that one of the main misperceptions turning young people away from mining engineering careers in particular is the perceived lack of flexibility.
"The name 'mining engineering' points to a very specific profession and students think this limits their choices and confines them to working in that sector," he said, noting that the core competencies mining engineering degrees equip students with, such as software and data analytics skills, in fact give graduates a huge range of career options.
He also said the fact that mining engineering roles are well-remunerated and involve travel and significant responsibility is not communicated well enough to students.
The dearth of new talent coming into the mining industry poses a weighty problem for the industry as a whole, but particularly for the production of critical minerals on which the energy transition and other technologies of the future rely.
"Geology must be taught to schoolchildren to reinforce the importance of minerals and metals to society," Foster said.
For now, the CSM is adapting to circumstances and adjusting its courses to offer mining-relevant training and skills where it can. This month, the CSM will welcome its first cohort of degree apprentices, where university-level mining engineering modules are taught in combination with on-the-job learning in the mining industry.
CSM also continues to offer geology as an undergraduate degree and range of masters courses that cover the entire mining value chain, from geology and mineral processing through to mine closure.
Foster called on the industry to support its efforts to maintain a supply of skills, by improving its outreach to young people, working on its diversity and inclusion performance and promoting the positive and essential role of mining to human prosperity.
Follow our special series on the skills shortage: Lost decade of mining graduates compounding skills shortages; Time to upgrade mining skill shortages from 'transitory' to 'persistent'; Industry puts its head together to solve the talent issue; Women may hold key to solving mining's skills shortage