No end in sight for mining's manpower crisis

For years, with the mining industry in decline, the incentive for skilled people to enter the industry diminished substantially. Now, with the industry again booming, mining is suffering a major skilled manpower crisis, which is drastically affecting costs and production worldwide.
Author: Alf Field
Posted: Sunday , 01 Apr 2007

SYDNEY - There is a manpower crisis in the form of a skilled worker shortage that is having an adverse impact on the mining industry. Whatever one is interested in, be it gold, silver, platinum, uranium, base metals, or other mining operations, this situation is impacting on all forms of mining. It will influence the way investors view mining companies. Current mining operations will struggle to maintain production while new projects will be delayed.
Most importantly, the skilled manpower crisis will slow the supply of newly mined metals to the market which will have implications for the prices of all metals.
To properly appreciate the situation one needs to understand that most metals, gold, silver, platinum, uranium, base metals and others have been in bear markets lasting 25, and in some cases 30, years. During those bear market years there was an attrition of skilled mining manpower. Young people looking for new careers carefully avoided the "No Go" areas of geology, mining engineering and other mining skills.
With declining student demand, Universities and colleges reduced or closed their geology and mining faculties. The supply of new graduates to the mining industry has been dropping steadily and there is now only a trickle of graduates coming through the system.
During the past few years new bull markets have developed simultaneously in gold, silver, platinum, uranium and base metals. These bull markets have spawned a vast array of new companies, all looking to find new large deposits of their favourite metal and bring new projects on stream. The demand for skilled workers in the mining industry has mushroomed.
Where will the additional skilled manpower come from? Not only to find and develop new projects, but also to keep existing mining operations producing adequately?
Increasingly the words "production declines due to labour and infrastructure shortages" are appearing in company reports. Delays in the preparation of Feasibility Studies are often being blamed on a "labour shortage". There is an rising incidence of new projects being delayed and subjected to massively higher capital costs, for example BHP's new Ravensthorpe Nickel mine where establishment costs have escalated from $1.1 billion to over $2.2 billion. There is no firm indication as to when Ravensthorpe will come on stream.
The average age of the existing complement of skilled mining manpower has been rising and there is a steady loss of people as they reach retirement age. Half the workers in the Canadian mining industry are between 40 and 54 years of age and 40% plan to retire in the next 8 years. The supply of new graduates barely covers the retiree loss.
Another form of attrition in the skilled mining area is the loss of geologists and mining engineers to the investment industry. The investment industry must deploy its research budgets in the most profitable and effective areas. In the 1970's when resources were booming and mining stocks formed a large proportion of market capitalisation and volumes traded, stock brokers and investment houses carried large complements of mining analysts and mining merger and acquisition teams.
During the ensuing resources bear markets the trend in stock markets was towards industrial and technology stocks. Investment industry research budgets were deployed accordingly. Mining research was slashed and analysts skilled in the new hot areas were hired. By the turn of the century resources accounted for low single digit percentages in both market capitalisation and volumes traded on most stock markets. Mining analysts had become an endangered species.
With the emergence of firstly the bull market in precious metals followed more recently by bull markets in uranium and base metals, the situation has reversed. Mining's share of volume traded and market capitalisation on world stock exchanges has been increasing steadily, as has merger and acquisition activity. The investment industry has been caught short of mining analysts and mining M&A teams.
Good mining analysts require special skills and they cannot be created quickly. The investment industry's solution has been to hire geologists and engineers to work with financial analysts to produce the necessary resources research. Those geologists and engineers who have gone to work in the investment industry's air-conditioned glass palaces are unlikely to want to get their hands dirty in the bush again. They are lost to the mining industry forever.
How long will the present shortage of skilled labour in the mining industry last? How long will it take for Universities to resuscitate their mining related faculties and generate an increased flow of graduates to the industry? The initial signs are not good. An Australian University located adjacent to a large mining area closed their geology and mining engineering departments many years ago and said that they had no intention of restarting these facilities. They did not want to get involved in a "boom and bust" situation again.

Those Universities with a more amenable attitude towards resuscitating their mining departments will find difficulty obtaining good teaching staff. When potential teaching candidates can earn several times what a Professor is paid by working in the mining industry, why would they want to go teaching? It will also take time to persuade new students to make mining their career after University mining faculties have been beefed up.
It will probably take several years to reach the point where sufficient Universities have increased their mining facilities to the point where they can attract an increasing flow of students. Then 4 to 5 years of study will be required for new students before an increased flow of skilled graduates is available to the mining industry.
A best case scenario would be 7 to 8 years before one could expect an increased flow of new mining graduates. A more realistic expectation would probably be 10 years.
The next decade looks as if it is going to be a period where mining companies will only be able to increase their skilled staff complement by pinching people from other companies. It is a zero sum game. If the total skilled staff situation is going to be static, or possibly even declining, then the mining industry as a whole will struggle to maintain current levels of production and will simply not have the people available to get new projects underway.
Mining staff will gravitate to those companies where the rewards are greatest and where there are facilities for a good family life. Mining labour costs will naturally rise sharply.
During the next decade most analysts expect an increasing demand for metals of all kinds. There are differences of opinion as to the rate of demand growth that can be expected but whatever it is, the total supply of new metals to the market is going to be stagnant during this coming decade due to the skilled labour shortage. If this is the case, then shortages will inevitably develop in markets for different metals leading to higher prices.
The basic economic law that higher prices will generate new supply may have to be postponed for a decade or so in the mining industry and metal markets.
There are implications for investors in the mining industry that need to be studied. In the envisaged circumstance for the coming decade, will a premium develop for those companies that are already in production, or about to do so within the next few months, as they will benefit most from rising metal prices? Will companies with great development projects be downgraded because of likely substantial delays in bringing their projects to the production stage?