B.C. Mining Labour Shortage

Aboriginal youth are willing, able and available to ?fill mining’s potentially devastating skilled labour shortage.

BC mining labour shortage
Demographic pressures are contributing to a labour shortage in B.C. mining.

Aboriginal youth are willing, able and available to 
fill mining’s potentially devastating skilled labour shortage.

Commodity prices are skyrocketing. Exploration spending is on the rise. New energy infrastructure is promising to unlock huge deposits of copper and gold. So what’s wrong with mining in B.C.? There won’t be enough workers to reap the benefits of all of the above. A perfect storm of economic growth, low birth rates and an aging workforce is expected to create a labour shortfall of nearly 100,000 workers across Canada over the next decade.

In B.C., home to more than 20 major operating coal, metal and aggregate mines, an estimated 15,000 additional workers will be needed. “Almost 50 per cent of our labour force is eligible for retirement over the next 10 years,” says Donald Lindsay, president and CEO of Teck Resources Ltd., which currently employs about 5,000 workers in the province. 

Retiring boomers will cause labour shortages in almost every sector, but mining will be hit particularly hard. Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C., notes that workers with education and experience in metallurgy and mineral-processing engineering will be particularly hard to find. This is in addition to the workers with more general skills the industry relies on, including heavy-equipment operators, mechanics and truck drivers. According to the national industry group Mining Industry Human Resources Council, these three job classifications will account for 611 job vacancies in 2012 – a number that will jump to 1,811 by 2020.

In addition to competing with other countries such as Australia and South Africa for these scarce workers, B.C. will be competing with Alberta’s oil sands, which rely on workers with many of the same skills demanded by open-pit metal mines, further increasing labour shortfalls and driving wages up.

How did we get to this crisis point? It’s due partly to the cyclical nature of the industry. At least three successive mining downturns beginning in the early ’90s meant that the flow of new recruits to the industry dried up. Jim Leader, head of BCIT’s Mining and Mineral Exploration Technology Program, says at least two additional factors scared aspiring young miners away: the Bre-X scandal of 1997 inflicted a very public black eye on the industry and environmental activists successfully painted miners as villains throughout the ’90s. 

Most in the industry agree that educating a new generation of miners is the top priority. Leader says BCIT’s Mining Technology Diploma Program and UBC’s School of Mining Engineering are back to full enrolment, and there are even more women students than ever before. But it’s going to take time to train new workers. “People now see jobs out there,” he says. “There is good money and many are saying, I want to do this, but you can’t just turn on a tap.” 

One solution is to reach out to a new generation of aboriginal aspiring miners. Many are eager, already living in remote communities close to mines, and, crucially, much younger than the average worker. In the last census, the median age of an aboriginal Canadian was just 25, while among the general population, the median age was 40. 

“In order to address that pent-up demand, we’re preparing a population of aboriginal candidates who will be able to take up some of those opportunities,” says Laurie Sterritt, who runs the B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Association (BCAMTA), which last year partnered with companies and mining industry associations to recruit more native workers into the industry. 

BCAMTA helps aspiring native youth and adults get the qualifications necessary to land a job. That can mean finishing high school, getting advanced training or receiving financial assistance to buy the tools and equipment needed to train and work. And the more than 100 working miners who have received BCAMTA support to date continue to get mentorship and training on the job, improving their chances of long-term success.

One of BCAMTA’s rising stars is Kelly Seymour, a 37-year-old heavy equipment operator who was hired on at New Gold’s New Afton mine in December. Seymour’s skills (he grades haul roads) are among those expected to be most in demand in 2020. 

Prior to seeking BCAMTA’s help, Seymour had repeatedly applied for work at New Afton without success. Despite a lot of road-building and heavy-machinery experience, Seymour lacked formal 
qualifications. BCAMTA set him up with a heavy-equipment-operator certification course at Thompson Rivers University; then, with that box checked, it was just a matter of getting the requisite first-aid and hazardous-material-handling tickets he needed to be considered for employment.

“It’s a good job,” says the father of two. “There are a lot more opportunities at this point than there ever were before.”