Bulgarian Mining - How Young Professionals See It

Bulgaria has a number of important mineral resources, notably bauxite, coal, copper, lead, zinc and more recently, gold. Rhodochrosite, valued for its gemstone qualities, is also found here, as are many other significant, and not so significant, minerals. However, according to many sources, hazardous working conditions, pollution, and serious environmental issues plague many sectors of the industry, notably the coal sector. 

Bulgaria relies heavily on coal and lignite – around 40% of its electricity comes from coal-powered stations. Therefore, whilst the rest of Europe, and most of the rest of the world, is slowly closing down their coal powered operations and moving to cleaner more sustainable energy sources, Bulgaria is bucking the global trend instead. It's actively expanding its coal industry and issuing new permits to coal miners. Is it a sustainable policy though?

Purchase prices for coal no longer cover the costs of digging it out of the ground, a trend that is closing coalmines around the globe, not just in Bulgaria. For example, and despite the Bulgarian coal industry being heavily subsidised by the government to keep it ticking over, the country's biggest coal fired electrical plant Bobov Dol was forced to shut down last year when the coalmines from which it sourced its coal closed for economic reasons. Additionally, the price of European carbon permits to offset the emissions from coal-powered power stations has also increased, putting further financial pressure on the Bulgarian government and the coal industry.

Coal Sector Reputation Taints A Whole Industry

The coal industry is so important in Bulgaria it's often the target of environmentalists and activists. The unhealthy working conditions, pollution problems, and poor environmental controls exposed by this publicity has given rise to a public perception (rightly or wrongly?) that Bulgaria's mining and quarrying sector in general is all like this. Therefore, it's interesting to speculate on the industry's future with respect to its human capital because Bulgaria has a good education system and many of the country's up and coming young professionals are very conscious of these issues.

Survey Canvasses Recent Mining Graduates And Current Students

This topic was the subject of a survey​ carried out in mid 2018. The survey consisted of a series of questions that asked Bulgaria's recent graduates and current students from St. Ivan Rilski (University of Mining and Geology), and the Chemistry and Physics faculties at Plovdiv University, for their thoughts about working in the country's quarrying and mining sector. The questionnaire also asked them about their perceptions of this industry elsewhere, and assessed their willingness to work in the sector, either at home in Bulgaria or abroad.

The results, when analysed, showed a strong correlation between where the students lived, and their keenness to find jobs in the industry at home. Notably, it found that students and recent graduates from the larger metropolitan areas are not particularly interested in working in mining and quarrying operations in Bulgaria. Those from smaller urban areas and country towns are somewhat more willing to do so but are also not overly keen. Indeed, overall the survey found that young mining specialists and those in associated fields in general, regardless of place of residence, typically show very little interest in working in Bulgaria's mining and quarrying industry.

Interestingly, other factors you'd expect to influence their decision to work in the industry, either at home or abroad (age, level of education, and income) didn't show any significant correlations. In other words, those from large metropolitan areas didn't want to work in the industry at home regardless of their age, education, or income, whilst those from smaller towns and cities were slightly more open to offers from local companies regardless of their education, income, or age.

Why Don't These Professionals Want To Work In Bulgaria?

Given the reputation of many of the country's mining and quarrying operations, especially coal, it comes as no surprise to learn that the major reasons cited for this unwillingness to work in mining and quarrying in Bulgaria include:

A perception that work conditions within the industry in Bulgaria are unhealthy.

Based on the results from the survey it's very clear that quarrying and mining in Bulgaria is associated in the public's mind with threats to health and safety, poor to unsafe work conditions, and environmental problems. Even those participants with an adequate knowledge of the local industry, and of the technological advances that are occurring within the sector, are reluctant to actually work in it or in any of the current facilities.

Low salaries - salaries and wages within the sector are considered inadequate, especially when compared to what's on offer in other countries, or even within other industries in Bulgaria.

Many of those who completed the survey indicated they are unenthusiastic about working within the local industry because of the low salaries on offer. They would prefer to work abroad in countries like the UK, Germany, Denmark etc where they feel salaries are more in line with their qualifications and expertise. Furthermore, along with better salaries it seems young Bulgarian mining professionals also feel they get better benefits working abroad than they would at home. These benefits include healthier, safer working conditions with superior health packages, better equipment, and more opportunities for ongoing training and personal development.

It also doesn't help that companies within the much publicised coal sector are notoriously unreliable when it comes to paying their workers on time, and that they're in the habit of paying part of the wages with food coupons redeemable at company run stores! Even those coupons are typically late. It's these types of negative scenarios that play into the public and professional perceptions about Bulgaria's mining industry generally.

A requirement to relocate to smaller cities and towns.

As we've noted previously, young mining professionals who come from the big cities are reluctant to move to smaller towns and cities for work. Whilst a certain amount of this reluctance may be due to social considerations, there's no doubt that some of it is also caused by environmental and public health concerns. After all, there's no shortage of publicity about the health issues rife in towns like Golemo Selo in the shadows of the smoke stacks of the Bobov Dol plant! Offers of inadequate salaries combined with unhealthy working environments never provide much incentive to relocate! However, these same professionals are prepared to relocate abroad to smaller towns and cities because of the better pay, working conditions, and opportunities for further education offered in other countries.

Offering Solutions

The survey suggests two strategies for increasing Bulgaria's 'human capital' in its mining and quarrying industry. 

It's All About Image

The first is one that mining sectors the world over are familiar with, namely the need to improve the image of the mining and quarrying industry in general. This is true not only with the wider public but also with young generations looking for a career path. In Bulgaria, it's suggested this can be done by players within the industry focusing particularly on two areas the survey has highlighted are problematic – working environment, and opportunities for advancement. If companies took up the challenge of addressing these issues, they'd likely find more young professionals prepared to stay home and work within the domestic industry.

The survey's authors note that one of the ways in which companies can start to build better relationships with future employees is in the classroom. Companies, it's suggested, should start making contact with these budding young professionals whilst they're still at university. Through advertising and promotion, demonstrate the ways in which the industry is favourably developing. Obviously, the required changes within the industry do need to actually happen! Could that be a selling point on its own however? Could some of these young minds be persuaded to contribute to ideas for cleaning up the industry and ensuring it moves forward in a cleaner, greener, safer way?

The other aspect companies need to tackle if they hope to retain the country's brightest minds of the future is developing internal systems by which employees can receive further training to build their competencies and progress up the corporate ladder. Incidentally, this situation isn't unique to mining and quarrying either. Bulgaria, along with Romania, is currently suffering from serious brain drain problems as huge numbers of qualified professionals across all sectors migrate to countries like Germany. The pay is better, chances for promotion are better, and the environment is cleaner. Sound familiar?

Educating Local Workers

The closure of the Bobov Dol plant put around 400 people from the local communities out of work and a similar fate looms for other coal-fired plants around the country. Therefore, it's clear that Bulgarian mining and quarrying operations in the vicinity of small towns and cities invariably have an available pool of local workers. However, many of these people lack the skills and qualifications needed to fill higher-ranking positions but that doesn't mean they can't be taught them! If young professionals from the big cities won't relocate to where the work is happening then it makes sense to look instead at developing talent that is already available. Identify workers with the aptitude and willingness to advance through the ranks and take on more responsibilities. Offer in-house training programs that qualify existing workers for better roles within the companies. Partner with tertiary institutions to provide courses and training for selected workers.

This type of ongoing on-job training that provides employees with opportunities to develop their skills and achieve further qualifications has become a 'must have' in today's business world. Companies that offer it are typically viewed more favourably by potential employees than those that don't. However, if the current brain drain being experienced by Bulgaria is any indication, it's a policy many Bulgarian companies have been slow to adopt, especially within the mining and quarrying industry.

What is the future of Bulgaria's mining industry? If gold miner Velocity Minerals Ltd has any say in the matter, it will be a lot brighter, and golder, than it's been for a long time!
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Wednesday, 25 November 2020
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