In today’s increasingly automated workplace environment, this is a thought at the forefront of many minds, particularly in the mining industry.
Mining is one of the industries leading the way when it comes to automation and technology. Global giant Rio Tinto is a world leader across many different types of technologies – they own the largest automated mining infrastructure in the world, including the largest fleet of automated trucks in their Pilbara iron ore operations in Western Australia. They also have a largely automated rail system in that state.
They call it ‘disruptive technology’, which is certainly an appropriate name! Disruptive technologies have been around for nearly as long as humans have had the large sophisticated brains capable of inventing newer, faster, better, safer ways of doing things. Disruptive technology was responsible for our change from nomadic hunter-gatherer to settled farmer. We figured out it was a lot less hassle to build permanent shelters and grow our own food instead of relying solely on what we could catch. That disrupted our previous way of life.
We then figured out how to make the tasks involved in farming and tilling the land increasingly more efficient. During the Stone Ages, we worked out how to make more sophisticated tools that disrupted the way we previously hunted and farmed. Then came the Iron Age when our use of stone implements was disrupted by our discovery and development of iron tools. Likewise, each successive Industrial Revolution has introduced new technologies that disrupted the way we previously did things. The development of the horseless carriage disrupted our traditional transportation systems. And so on, right throughout history.
However, the disruptive technology we’re experiencing today is unprecedented both with respect to its speed of development and implementation and its characteristics. Furthermore, its effects are not uniform. Some types of new technologies will increase productivity but won’t necessarily cause a wholesale reduction in job numbers overall. New technologies like AI, machine learning, smart sensors, and the IoT would fall into this category – they still require human input but people will need to be reskilled accordingly. Other types of new technologies such as drones and equipment automation though will replace jobs done by humans without necessarily creating the equivalent number of new jobs elsewhere in the system. Automated equipment like haul trucks and pit machinery for example can be controlled remotely by one or two people rather than needing one individual operator per piece of equipment.
Various technologies will also have differing effects depending on where it’s being implemented, how fast it’s rolled out, and the circumstances and frameworks in which that happens. Less diversified economies, with limited access to the educational resources needed to retrain affected employees and fewer other employment opportunities overall, will feel the effects more than advanced economies with a greater range of opportunities for reskilling and re-employment. Likewise, the impact will be more severe in situations where disruptive technologies are implemented faster than displaced workers can be re-trained or reemployed elsewhere.
Taking Jobs But Creating New Ones Elsewhere
Many new technologies can both replace and create jobs. They can for example increase demand for software engineers, developers and programmers. New technologies like AI and the IoT require data processors and analysts. GIS software requires GIS technicians, coordinators, analysts, and specialists. These jobs invariably pay better than some of the more traditional mining jobs being automated, like drilling, blasting, and driving trucks. However, they do require adequate training and a demonstrated aptitude for the work!
Taking Jobs But Improving Productivity To Allow Expansion And Thus More Jobs
In some cases, increasing automation and the application of smart technologies have the potential to improve productivity to the point where a business, or entire industry, can significantly expand. Therefore, whilst the number of ‘jobs per tonne’ may decrease, the overall expansion of the company, or industry, creates more jobs. However, most experts agree that automation within the mining industry will probably see an overall reduction in jobs, especially ‘on the ground’.
Reducing Job Opportunities For Local Communities In The Short Term But Potentially Improving Long Term Educational Opportunities
New technologies will affect employment opportunities within local communities and this may well affect how effectively companies can obtain a social licence to operate. Most of the automated machinery on mine sites of the future will be controlled remotely. The employees doing this work will be based in operations centres hundreds, or even thousands, of kilometres away from the site. Therefore, if operators from local communities want these jobs they’ll have to relocate to where these centres are. That’s not always possible or feasible.
Communities in regions where education systems are very basic or non-existent may also struggle to provide locals with adequate training for jobs utilising new technologies. However, for long-term projects, mining companies may be able to develop relationships with local educational authorities to create training opportunities in new technologies.
Improving Local Communities In Other Ways
New technologies, particularly those that improve mining’s environmental and social impact, can also lead to improvements in these areas for local communities, even though employment opportunities are significantly reduced. Mines for example require water and a number of mining companies have already implemented sustainable water solutions in conjunction with local communities that benefit both the mine and the community. Improving electricity supplies in the area is another way mining companies can help improve the ‘lot’ of local communities.
Mining companies can also help lessen the impact of the increasing lack of job opportunities within local communities by ensuring they utilise local businesses as much as possible in other ways. If they need to hire equipment, they can ensure they hire it from or via local contractors. They can ensure they employ locals for services like cleaning and facilities maintenance. They can purchase supplies from or through local businesses.
Then there is the inescapable fact that automated technology requires the technological infrastructure to operate it. The Internet of Things won’t work without high-speed Internet access for instance, and by bringing this technology to remoter areas to operate mine sites, local communities can benefit from the technology as well.
It’s also possible that improved operational data collected by mining operations (tailings dam and water quality, dust and noise emissions etc) could be made available to local communities. This would provide more transparency around the operation as it affects the community, and may even provide local employment opportunities by way of data processing and analysing.
Of course, creating development opportunities for local communities doesn’t need to be mining related. Miners can and do contribute to local development in a myriad of other ways that either directly or indirectly provide additional job opportunities for locals.
Increasing Small Scale And Artisanal Mining, Which Is And Isn’t A Good Thing
It’s already becoming apparent that the lack of opportunities for low skilled workers informal mining is contributing to the increase of small scale and artisanal mining within local communities. Whilst this provides an income for the operators, it’s also largely unregulated in many countries, particularly developing countries, which leads to health and environmental issues. Furthermore, as the application of increasingly more productive technology in the formal sector ramps up output there, small scale / artisanal operators may struggle to compete.
Overall, therefore, whilst the impact of disruptive technologies can be offset to a degree in developed communities through the natural development of related job opportunities elsewhere, it remains a fact that these technologies have the potential to disrupt the industry’s relationship with local communities in less developed economies. Given that many of mining’s ‘new frontiers’ are in developing countries ie Mongolia it’s imperative that the increasing use of disruptive technologies is done in such a way that local communities receive some compensatory benefits. Enterprising miners are already coming up with ways to offset this impact that will benefit not just the company by way of obtaining local ‘approval’ to mine but will also provide long-term economic improvements for those communities that are not necessarily mining related.