Retirement, expansion fuels mining industry’s need for skill – by Ian Ross (Northern Ontario Business – April 2013)

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. Ian Ross is the editor of Northern Ontario Business ianross@nob.on.ca.

Retirement and expansion in Northern Ontario’s mining industry means companies will be hard-pressed to replenish the ranks.

A report commissioned by the Mining Industry Human Resource Council and the Algoma Workforce Investment Committee released in late February presented a picture of what lies ahead to attract people to mining jobs.

In Algoma, the mining industry employs 5,145 in exploration, development, production and processing. Over the next decade, because of expansion, retirement and varying commodity prices, the needs of the industry range between 4,670 and 4,980.

Across Ontario, the industry needs 59,000 workers over the next 10 years. The demographics in the Algoma district mirrors much of Northern Ontario: the population is aging and young people are leaving. The poor image of the mining industry is a contributing factor to recruitment challenges.

Aboriginal people make up nearly 15 per cent of the industry’s workforce, but mining could use more of them, along with more women and immigrants.

The report’s findings come as no big shock to Maury O’Neill, executive director of the Wawa Economic Development Corporation.

Her town has two operating gold mines close by and two more gold projects on the horizon.

“We always talk about future hiring requirements for the mining industry in our area. We’re faced with population decline and youth outmigration so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but seeing it in black and white…the loss of skills, knowledge and talent, it’s certainly a reminder of how critical it is for our region to really come up with some innovative solutions to try to tackle this shortage of labour.”

Within an hour’s driving radius of Wawa, area gold producers like Richmont Mines and Wesdome Gold keeping chugging along and, with their ongoing exploration, are always looking to expand their operations.

Now new players have arrived on the scene. Among the more advanced is Strike Minerals which has dewatered and is breathing new life into the former Edwards Mine with an eye on starting gold production this year.

Nearby, Argonaut Gold acquired Prodigy Gold last fall and its Magino Mine project, just southeast of Dubreuilville. The mid-tier miner is planning for production in late 2016, early 2017.

Though finding individual company workforce requirements is difficult to source, a development project can require 400 construction workers and 200 permanent workers at an open pit.

For Wawa, it’s back to the future with its roots as an iron ore mining town at the turn of the last century, feeding Algoma Steel’s blast furnaces to the south in Sault Ste. Marie.

The Algoma Ore Divison mine and sinter plant closed in 1998, followed by the mothballing of a nearby Weyerhaeuser oriented strandboard plant, leaving the since-struggling community without a main industry.

But gold has got everyone’s tongue wagging these days and Wawa officials are sitting at the table of a regional mining labour task force with representatives from the mining companies, Confederation College and the Ontario Prospectors Association to strategize if locals can be trained up or whether workers must be imported from outside Ontario and Canada.

“This study has strengthened everyone’s resolve to get together and do something for the regional mines,” said O’Neill, who acknowledges it will be a competitive market to attract labour.

The study isn’t just about attracting hard rock miners, said O’Neill, but also about downstream opportunities on the supply side and support personnel that may bring out the entrepreneurial side of local residents.

Beside the need for underground and development miners, there are jobs to be filled in mineral and metal processing, as construction millwrights, industrial mechanics, heavy equipment and crane operators, electricians and truck drivers.

Her department plans to survey the mining companies in the coming months to find out where they are purchasing their supplies and determine if local businesses can fill that need or whether there are opportunities for new businesses to develop.

The report said some of the more progressive-thinking companies have resorted to job-sharing between older and younger workers, mentorship and retaining recent retirees as advisors as a means to mitigate the impacts of an aging workforce.

Whether Wawa can house a large mining workforce seems unlikely. O’Neill said the new mines coming online are just far enough away – about an hour-and-half drive from town – that commuting back and forth becomes impractical.

Semi-remote mines like Wesdome, located off the Trans-Canada Highway between Wawa and White River, have accommodations on-site for itsworkforce.

“It is a challenge that each community will have to face, how much can we capture in terms of the economic impact when the miners are not living in the community because of issues of travel.”

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