While the mining industry often cites a skills shortage as one of the challenges it is confronting, workplace skills plans submitted to the Mining Qualifications Authority (MQA) do not indicate a skills dearth in the South African mining industry.
Stella Carthy, head of skills development at the Chamber of Mines (CoM), says the workplace skills plan analysis for 2010/11 in the occupational categories covering professionals, engineers and geologists, where the biggest shortages are supposedly experienced, indicates a shortage of only 1.6% – the same as for technicians and artisans.
“The percentage of 1.6% cannot be described as a shortage. These figures are not indicating a shortage of skills. However, the industry continues to say there is a shortage – so where is the mismatch?” asks Carthy.
“Perhaps, it is the way in which we report on the availability of skilled labour, which could be a lack of understanding between human resources personnel, who are respons- ible for gathering the data, and line personnel, who might see a shortage as workers who are not adequately skilled. Or, perhaps, the skills shortage is a myth that has just not been dispelled,” she adds.
Meanwhile, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Mining Engineering head Professor Fred Cawood says South African training institutions do not truly understand the market for mining professionals, as it is complicated.
He says a qualified person in mining does not mean someone who holds an academic qualification but rather a combination of the qualification, experience, which is referred to as the ‘hard yards’, and willingness to start at the bottom. “The shortage of 1.6% referred to might be a lot bigger in this context,” he adds.
Cawood further explains that the mining industry is cyclical, as demand for commodities increase and prices rise, mining companies require more graduates, but, when the industry experiences a drop, as is currently the case in the platinum sector, companies suddenly require a significantly lower number of skilled workers.
There is also a need to introduce mechanical mining methods in the workplace. South African mines use more labour-intensive mining methods at higher cost, compared with competitors internationally. This, says Cawood, is not sustainable and the latest labour issues might be the trigger that brings about the changes that are necessary. Should this happen, there will be a significant shift in the demand for graduates, which will affect the student enrolment size and the content of current education and training programmes targeted at the mining industry.