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Prospecting for Talent

John Greenwood
Financial Post

 

CREDIT: Peter Redman, National Post
INDUSTRY FACES HUGE SKILLS SHORTAGE: Michael McPhie, president of the B.C. Mining Association, at this week's Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention in Toronto: Canada will fail to reap the full benefits of the biggest commoditiy boom in three decades if it can't find the talent.

Mining came back to life three years ago, coming off a 10-year slump, as demand from China's red-hot economy began pushing up prices for commodities, everything from coal, to iron to aluminum and copper. Today, prices of some commodities have doubled, even quadrupled, and the upward pressure still has not let up.

Canada's mining industry, one of the world's most important, didn't know what hit it. Suddenly, long dormant juniors were scrambling to put together exploration programs, while larger players rushed to fire up mothballed mines that were now economic again.

All that activity has meant a lot of hiring. Mr. McPhie estimates that each new mine means about 250 direct jobs and an additional 600 spin-offs in surround communities.

British Columbia alone has 25 new mine proposals and they are all approved. "Finding workers to fill those jobs will be a daunting task," Mr. McPhie says. The situation is exacerbated because the sector has brought in little new blood in recent years. "If you talk to big companies, and you look at the demographics of head office, they are all older guys and they don't get replaced easily. We're going to be playing catch-up."

According to a recent study by the Mining Industry Training and Adjustment Council, as much as 40% of workers -- many of them senior engineers and geologists -- are expected to leave the industry by 2010. "More than half the current workforce is eligible to retire in the next 10 years, taking with them an average of 21 years of mining sector experience each," the report says.

And the continued boom in the oil and gas industry is making matters worse. Activity there started picking up well before it did in mining, which has given oil producers such as the massive oilsands projects in Alberta a significant head start in the race to attract new workers.

Mr. McPhie says one British Columbia mining company recently erected a recruitment office on the highway to Fort McMurray in hopes of luring at least some of the thousands of job seekers that pass by on their way to the oilsands projects.

The industry is working with government to try to solve the skills shortage, and they have come up with some solutions. Universities are getting more funding to beef up their mining faculties, trade schools are bulking up and many companies are putting more effort into hiring women, who currently account for about 13% of mining employees, compared with 47% in the rest of the Canadian workforce. However, insiders say these efforts, although considerable, are still not enough to take up the slack.

Another possible solution is immigration, but the industry says more needs to be done to attract those with the right skills.

Prakash Joshi, a senior technologist at engineering services giant Amec, says government and industry need to work together to help immigrant professionals make the transition to the right positions in Canada.

"There's a lot of skilled people coming to this country and they're not getting jobs," says Mr. Joshi, who works out of Amec's global mining practice in Vancouver. He spends a lot of his spare time counselling immigrants on integrating into the workforce.

Two decades ago, many Asians and Chinese were happy just to be allowed to live in Canada, he says. But more recently countries in that region have gone through a major technological boom. Many of them now boast some of the world's top universities. Mr. Joshi says immigrants from Asia will no longer settle for just being allowed to take out citizenship, especially those with valuable skill sets.

Mr. Joshi, who joined Amec 25 years ago, says many immigrant professionals find themselves faced with bureaucratic hurdles as soon as they set foot in the country. Typically, the difficulties start with trying to persuade Canadian professional associations to recognize their qualifications. "But engineering is engineering, whether you do it in India or Canada," he says.

Getting Canadian accreditation often turns into a lengthy process. "They already have the engineering experience, but they have to take exams anyway," Mr. Joshi says. "At the same time, they often have a family to support and other challenges. It takes quite a while. And after they write all the exams, they go out in workforce, and the first thing employers ask them is whether they have Canadian experience."

The situation has improved since the boom began and everyone involved is working to make the transition process easier. But there is still a lot of bureaucracy for new immigrants to contend with, and no one to help them.

"Before going off to recruit new immigrants, the government should find out the answers to questions like, what kind of engineers does the country need? And where will they be located?" Mr. Joshi suggests.

The danger is some of these highly skilled immigrants will become frustrated and move to another country, perhaps the United States, where they feel they have better opportunities.

At a time when much of the Western world is in a race to attract skilled immigrants, this would be a huge setback, not just for the mining sector but for the country as a whole.

© National Post 2006
 
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