Insights from 2019 World Gold Conference
by Danielle Thompson-Hewitt
How can we ensure the sustainability of the global gold mining industry?
Last month, I attended the 2019 World Gold Conference (WGC) in Perth. While this conference is primarily technical, it was interesting to observe that some speakers looked at the event’s theme ‘Unlocking sustained value from gold deposits’ from a different angle.
Focusing on the challenges that are being faced by the industry, and how they affect the future of gold mining, these presentations provided thought-provoking insights into what might be considered more ‘social’ risk factors to the longevity of the sector.
The challenges in question varied, from innovation, to dealing with changing community perception, and the steep decline in those interested in entering the industry’s workforce.
An industry lacking fresh faces and the drive for new ideas
Of immediate concern to the industry is the dwindling numbers of students electing to study mining industry-related disciplines. Although it was presented in an Australian context, it is a significant challenge to the global industry as it poses multiple risks to:
- industry sustainability, which relies on enough people willing to work and obtain the expertise required
- diversity, that is needed to encourage the exploration and implementation of new ideas and processes
- innovation, with strong economies contributing to the creation of vibrant ecosystems that foster the generation of new ideas and processes.
While those associated with the industry have long appreciated the importance of mining to society, and the amazing opportunities that a career in mining can afford, it appears as though these messages have been missing from the dialogue for a number of years.
In addition to workforce concerns, it was also acknowledged how the nature of gold mining remains similar today to how it was four decades ago, in part thanks to the industry’s reputation of being a “fast follower” when it comes to innovation.
For the most part, any new technologies that are being implemented are largely digital (and integrated into existing processes via sensors and instrumentation), as the mining industry seeks to replicate the success that digital transformation has had on other sectors.
The challenge is, however, that digital technologies are not necessarily going to resolve all the key environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues that the gold mining industry is now being asked to address.
Certainly, they will assist in monitoring and delivering against key performance metrics, for example, the World Gold Council’s Responsible Gold Mining Principles. However, to meet these commitments, the industry is likely going to need to invest in non-digital technologies (such as new infrastructure and new processes), especially for the environmental principles that include:
- the use of cyanide and other hazardous materials (including mercury)
- mine closure
- water and energy usage, and
- climate change.
A new era of gold mining necessitates a new era of education
It must be acknowledged that a company takes on significant risk when they are the first to implement a new technology. So, what can the innovators do to support the industry in their future endeavours to address ESG?
It’s here that we experience somewhat of a catch-22.
If we are to be successful in our future innovation endeavours, it is critical that we attract a diverse workforce back to our industry. (Something a number of Australian organisations, including the Gold Industry Group and the Minerals Council of Australia, are already addressing).
However, notwithstanding the financial risks to a company, training and education are also huge barriers to adoption of new technologies. Wherein lies the catch.
How will you know your future metallurgists can manage a processing plant that uses a new chemical technology if they haven’t had any exposure to it at university (or in a previous role at a different operation)? What if they’ve never worked in mining before?
We need to reconsider the mechanisms of how (and when) we train our future workforce, ensuring they can access the right knowledge at the right time.
But how do we achieve this?
Putting the shine back into gold mining
The gold mining industry’s innovators are a vital piece in this puzzle. This was my key take-away from WGC 2019.
From micro-credentials to accreditation programs, there are many ways in which – even our workforce today – can upskill. I am not recommending that innovators become educators. However, there is a clear opportunity for them to play a pivotal role in ensuring our future workforce has the knowledge they require to carry out their work (and at the time that they most need it).
Apart from the traditional educational pathways, there are other mechanisms that could be used to facilitate the training and education of our current and future workforce. These include programs where:
- researchers are embedded into business (or vice versa)
- early career researchers are placed into businesses to develop and implement new ideas with commercial potential
- industry participates in multi-client, collaborative research projects
As one of the gold mining industry’s many innovators, we play a part in solving this challenge (e.g. Innovation Connections and STEM+ Business). We are also well-positioned to expand our activities and build upon our established collaborative research engagements with universities and other tertiary education institutions across the globe.
If you’re interested in being a part of the collaborative ecosystem seeking to solve the future workforce challenge (and ensure the sustainability of the global gold mining industry), contact me on +61 8 9334 8094 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.