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Image makeover needed to draw fresh talent to mining

Iamgold Corp. has gold mines in Suriname, Burkina Faso, Mali and Quebec. Here is its Essakane operation in Burkina Faso.


It is almost unheard of for CEOs to grant media interviews about human resource matters because in most companies hiring does not require the scarce resource of CEO attention.

But Steve Letwin, chief executive officer of Iamgold Corp. , Canada's sixth-largest gold producer last year with mines in Suriname, Burkina Faso, Mali and Quebec, not only agreed to be interviewed about the serious global labour shortage confronting the resource sector now, but he also spoke frankly about the striking adjustments his company is making to address the shortage of skilled workers.

"We have this massive gap between the mining people who are ready for retirement and young people who are willing to go to locations that are not downtown Toronto," Mr. Letwin said. "We've raised our children – and I have three of them – to want the good life. That's fine, but the good life is not defined as somewhere in West Africa or deep in the jungles of South America or northern Quebec. So to get people educated, trained and motivated to go to these spots is not exactly easy."

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The Mining Industry Human Resources Council was set up in 1996 to help mining workers transition out of the industry because of its bleak job prospects at that time. It now estimates that, based on only modest growth-rate assumptions, the mining industry, which currently employs 230,000 people, may need to hire 112,000 new employees by 2021, said Ryan Montpellier, MiHR executive director.

Mining has been the biggest job creator in the Canadian economy, accounting for almost 8 per cent of all new jobs created last year, Mr. Montpellier said. With 40 per cent of the current mining work force older than 50 and about a third of it eligible to retire as early as 2016, just maintaining current employment levels will be a challenge.

But there is an unprecedented $140-billion worth of new mine projects in the environmental assessment and permit stages of development across the country, he said.

"Now, they won't all get approval," he said, but if a substantial number progress to development, the industry could need as many as 200,000 new employees in the next 10 years.

"Right now in Canada, mining is driving the economic recovery and if that's going to continue, the industry is going to need people, lots more people," Mr. Montpellier said.

Their jobs will range from low-skill support positions to skilled tradesmen and highly educated engineers, metallurgists and geoscientists at remote exploration camps, mine sites and business offices across Canada and around the world.

Hindering recruitment are some ongoing misconceptions and outdated perceptions about mining, Mr. Montpellier said. The image of mining as a dangerous, high-risk industry with men doing back-breaking labour deep underground and exploiting the resources of poor, underdeveloped countries is one that the industry must address.

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Mining has become one of the safest industries, he said. It is a technology-intense field in which computer-controlled equipment often does most of the hardest work, while knowledgeable, highly trained technologists operate computers and other sophisticated equipment.

The industry has to do a better job of informing the public about the facts of modern mining and especially about the social, environmental and health and safety advances it has made, Mr. Letwin said.

Iamgold, which is known in mining circles as a leader in corporate social responsibility, implemented a program called Zero Harm several years ago to instill high standards of responsibility and sustainability in its operations.

"Zero Harm is in our DNA," he said. "It's part and parcel of our culture. It's our commitment to each other, to the environment and to the communities where we operate. … We want to be the Apple of the mining business."

It is a responsibility that starts at the top, Mr. Letwin said. When he visited the company's Essakane gold mine site in Burkina Faso in West Africa last fall, he spent considerable time meeting with local chiefs and community leaders and talking with residents to understand their concerns and help Iamgold remain a responsible community member.

"I am just a huge believer in relationships," Mr. Letwin said. "You need to go around and visit, you need to put time and energy into the communities where you work."

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Zero Harm embodies the value of ethical, responsible behaviour and respect that young people value highly, he said.

Companies that manifest those values will be recognized and appreciated by the next generation of workers, and they will bestow on those companies an important advantage in what may be mining's greatest challenge: recruiting the employees that will build mining's future success.

Changing ways underground

Mining companies are making dramatic changes to their traditional business practices to accommodate their newest workers, said Scott Jobin-Bevans, president, co-founder and director of Caracle Creek International Consulting and an industry leader in student recruitment.

"Our biggest challenge is just the sheer volume of bodies that are going to be required," said Mr. Jobin-Bevans, who is also immediate past president of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada.

Here are a few of the changes taking place because of labour shortages:

Higher wages and salaries: The latest average wage for all mining sector employees is now $40.42 an hour, or about $84,000 a year. By contrast, the average annual wage for all sectors is about $25 an hour, or $52,000 a year. This makes mining one of the highest paid sectors of the economy and salaries continue to rise

Hire more women: Women are a positive addition to exploration camps and mine sites, said André Gaumond, president and CEO of Virginia Mines in Quebec City. These days, 40 per cent of Virginia's field teams are women. "The women are not as strong as men in the field, you can't ask them to do the same things," Mr. Gaumond said. "But women are more, I would say, perfectionist. When it's time to describe a rock outcrop, the ladies do it better. And they bring an equilibrium to camp. When you have the presence of a female, the men are more respectful."

Hire more aboriginals: The mineral industry prefers to hire as many of its employees as close to its operating sites as possible, Mr. Jobin-Bevans said. Since mining sites are usually in remote northern regions, aboriginal people have worked alongside miners for centuries in Canada. In recent years the industry has been devoting considerable resources to training native people for mining jobs.

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