The mining sector’s increasing reliance on third-party consultants, owing to the lack of experienced mechanical and electrical engineers, is neither ideal nor sustainable, says independent consulting firm SRK Consulting principal consultant Steve Owen.
“When we look back at how the mining industries in countries like South Africa and Zambia were originally built, it is clear that there were solid engineering skills that created a sound foundation,” he says.
“The equipment employed by mines, particularly in complex deep-level operations, such as those in South Africa’s gold sector, often employs cutting-edge technology that requires specialised skills to ensure proper installation, effective maintenance and safe functioning.”
Owen, who climbed the corporate ladder through an initial technical qualification, appreciates the value of apprenticeship – a mode of learning, which, he says, has been sadly neglected in recent years.
His technical studies complemented closely monitored on-the-job training, enabling him to become a reliable artisan within five years.
Owen believes the success of the mining industry in most countries during his time of study was based on the competence and discipline of experienced artisans.
“You needed at least two years of postgraduate experience before you could take your local Government Certificate of Competency test, which might sound a long time, but there is no shortcut when lives are at stake. You cannot fast-track this kind of learning – there is so much detail to familiarise yourself with and any poor decision can compromise safety,” he asserts.
Owen emphasises, for instance, the responsibility of a deep-level gold mine’s mechanical and electrical departments, which can draw as much energy as a city. Working in an underground environment, with constant production pressure, adds to the danger posed by the smallest undetected fault, he says.
“It is unfair to put inexperienced youngsters, even those with university qualifications, straight into positions with this sort of responsibility. Traditionally, it was the foreman and the general engineering supervisors – with decades of experience among them – who could help ‘initiate’ young graduates into the working environment, ensuring that there were no gaps in their knowledge. You can’t expect a young graduate to be working on electric switchgear, for example.”
SRK South Africa chairperson Roger Dixon says the skills shortage is a result of aging, experienced artisans who are reaching retirement age.
“When we are invited as consultants to mining operations, we sometimes battle to find a qualified or experienced mechanical or electrical engineer on site. As mines become less profitable, these skills become more expen- sive and operations stretch their engineers’ capabilities over too wide an area of respon-sibility,” he comments.
Research commissioned by the Department of Labour recently reiterated the general consensus in the mining industry that the “poor quality of mathematics and science education at school level”, compounded by the “general low quality of the school system”, needed to be amended before the country’s engineering skills could be boosted.
However, Dixon emphasises the value of engineering apprenticeships in the mining sector, as he believes the multiskilled nature of mines made them an ideal training ground for young learners to be exposed to various technical demands.
“It is not enough to bemoan the demise of the apprenticeship system. “The mining sector needs to proactively pursue this kind of training approach, drawing particularly on the experience of older engineering personnel. “We need to do this before they retire or we need to draw them out of retirement, if necessary,” he enthuses.
Dixon adds that it is becoming increasingly obvious that skills are a country’s best economic foundation and that Africa’s economies are fertile fields of opportunity for electrical and mechanical skills.
In response to this, SRK provides niche expertise, offering mining companies guidance and support when dealing with mine-specific engineering challenges.