Skills shortages in mining a major barrier to Canadian competitiveness

In addition to a large endowment of natural resources from Mother Nature, Canada’s strength in mining was also founded on its unique pool of qualified experts working in the industry. However, over the past two decades a skills crisis has transformed what was previously a competitive advantage into the sector’s key challenge.  A lack of local skilled professionals, a rapidly aging workforce, and antiquated immigration policies make it difficult for companies to fill vacant roles with qualified candidates threatening short and long-term growth prospects.

These challenges aren’t unique to mining, or Canada, but the Canadian mining industry is feeling the effects of these challenges much more acutely. According to survey results collected for the 2013 Resources and Mining Global Salary Guide produced annually by Hays Canada, 40 per cent of Canadian mining employers cite “skills shortages” as a significant issue. Left unchecked the skills shortage will have a dramatic impact on Canada’s overall economy which relies on one of the world’s most dynamic mining and exploration industries.

The good news is that from a pure compensation perspective the Canadian mining industry is an attractive option for new recruits. According to the Hays survey, Canadian based mining industry professionals are the third best paid in the world – just ahead of both Germany and the U.S. Furthermore, unlike the oil and gas sector, mining is better positioned to reduce the impact of retiring baby boomers because its workforce demographics are evenly distributed between younger, middle-aged and older professionals. Currently there is human capital to draw from and train to create the next generation of business leaders.

But this won’t last much longer and tomorrows’ leaders can expect to struggle with the pervasive skills shortage issue if steps aren’t taken to address it now. One solution is to provide training, education and clearly defined career progression programs because there aren’t enough professionals with 10 to 15 years of mining experience to take-over from baby boomers that are expected to retire in the next five years. And yet training alone won’t completely help fill the gaps. According to research from the Mining Industry Human Resources Council the Canadian mining industry is expected to require almost 150,000 new recruits by 2023 (more than half the current workforce). This is why this sector should also consider foreign skilled labour as part of the solution to the industry’s tight labour market.

Rethinking the foreign skilled worker model  

Taking a page from the Australian immigration model, which has addressed many of the challenges that Canada is facing today, the federal government would work with the private sector to prioritize a list of high-demand jobs, and then companies would apply to be pre-approved to submit applicants for these positions. This creates a number of benefits. Companies looking to hire a foreign worker won’t have to go through the exhaustive process of proving that the job can’t be filled locally because that’s already been proven. Instead, it virtually guarantees that the foreign-born applicant will be approved for the job on skills merit – sometimes in as little as two to three weeks.

In essence, it fills two public priorities. First, it allows our economy to grow quickly, by ensuring we have the right skills for the jobs available. Second, it allows Canada to be an attractive destination for highly skilled immigrants looking for work in mining. They will know there is a job – a real job – when they get here. Change is needed because we are currently not serving either of these priorities well. Right now, a mining company applying to bring in a foreign worker with the right skills and experience has to navigate a system that is complex, expensive and lengthy. There are burdens of proof that are required each and every step along the way, and because the process can take three months or longer, the business opportunity that presented the need for more labour can be lost.

Also, the current blanket approach to accepting new Canadians because of what they’ve studied – engineering, computer science, finance, medicine – isn’t adequately mapping back to job prospects. In the case of engineering, there are many different sub fields– chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical.  The real test of whether an individual’s skills are in demand is exactly that, i.e. are there employers willing to offer them a role? Companies often look for people with specific designations in mining, along with a history of working on specific projects. It’s not good enough to allow a new Canadian to enter our workforce simply because they have a degree, as too often this is what fuels the frustrating “doctors driving taxis” scenario we hear so much about. Getting the private sector and government to collaborate will ensure the right immigrants are selected for the right job.

The government’s Expression of Interest (EOI) program is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to ensure these changes to Canada’s immigration policy are made. Canadian mining companies and the government need to start acting like leaders in employment, because the human resources needed to drive growth in mining are just as important as the resources themselves.

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