Wits 4IR

The onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Africa bodes well for the junior mining industry. However, the introduction of a myriad of technological advances also requires the workforce to have a new skillset.

The question is: Are universities equipping future mine engineers with the skills needed that will make them employable in this new age of mining. GERARD PETER reports.

It’s not rocket science. Automation, virtual reality and robotics, to name just a few, along with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), will require mining engineers to be more tech-savvy and have a different thinking approach.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 2, 2020

Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here

So, does this mean that skills sets required of future mining engineers will differ greatly from current engineers? Also, does this mean that the calibre and requirements of engineering students accepted into universities will change?

Read: Sibanye-Stillwater launches DigiMine at Wits

According to Professor Fred Cawood, director of the Wits Mining Institute, this is not the case. “The requirements to enter into the course remain the same as the core skills required to become an engineer have not changed,” he says.

What is required, he points out, are additional skills required for mining in 4IR. However, Cawood states that engineers do not have to have an expert knowledge of new technologies or disciplines used in mines.

“There needs to be common ground. Rather, what is needed is that engineers are equipped with enough knowledge of these technological developments such as coding, blockchain, etc. In that way, they can collaborate with the tech experts to ensure that a mine operates efficiently.”

Collaboration between various disciplines in mining is key in 4IR, states Cawood. To that end, Wits Mining Institute has created a Digimine Laboratory, a state-of-the-art mining laboratory. The aim of laboratory is to make mining safer and sustainable using digital technologies.

Started in 2015, the digital mine laboratory comprises a ‘mine’, complete with surface, vertical shaft and mock mine with control room.

The mock mine has a life-size tunnel, stope, lamp room and other features. It is equipped with the digital systems that will enable the research for the mine of the future.

More importantly, says Cawood, it brings all various mining disciplines together to solve typical day-to-day issues at mines.

“The various disciplines sit around the table and workshop various problem scenarios and see which discipline the responsibility lies with. For example, an electrical problem will be identified and the mining engineering students will then have to collaborate with the electrical engineer to solve the problem.

“What is fascinating is that at the end of the day, these students might be registered for mining, but for two years, they work closely with the other disciplines and in doing so they learn extra skills that will allow them to carry out a meaningful conversation with the various experts in a mine to solve problems. As far as I know, the Digimine is the only one of its kind in the world.”

Read: Wits Digimine to host digital mining seminar

Furthermore, Cawood believes that mine engineers can make themselves more employable in 4IR through post-graduate qualifications in these new disciplines. “Today, our undergraduates are much more tech-savvy than any other generation before them.

“Therefore, they have the necessary ability to learn new technological and computer skills. What they do need, however, is an older generation that asks questions, not solve problems for them. The better the questions we ask, the better equipped they will be to use their tech and computer skills to solve problems,” he concludes.

New leadership approach needed

While machines will do the linear work in 4IR, the role that humans play on a mine will never be obsolete, however, their roles will change and with it, new skills will be needed.

Professor Ronnie Webber-Youngman, HOD: Department of Mine Engineering at the University of Pretoria (Tuks) says that it is important for mining engineering students to get exposure to the soft-skills associated with 4IR.

“At the 2016 World Economic Forum, Alex Grey presented a paper on the 10 skills required in 4IR. Out of these, more than 60% were related to non-technical skills, with the top three being complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. As such, universities cannot ignore training their students in these skills.”

It is for that reason that Webber-Youngman implemented the Mine Engineering Leadership Academy (MILA) at Tuks in 2013 in addition to teaching the technical skills required for the job.

“We realised that our students needed to develop their own soft skills and in that context, leadership skills are very important in order to make them more employable.

In order to address this issue, Webber-Youngman explains that in the mine design project for final year students, 80% is dedicated to technical mine design principles and 20% relates to management and leadership.

“For example, we had the team that was responsible for the relocation of the residents in Dingleton in the Northern Cape speak to the students about the complexities around the mining environment that they will have to deal with. In doing so, we were able to show our students that mining is not all about the technical aspects, but rather about people.”

Going back to the WEF report, Webber-Youngman believes that the first requirement, complex problem solving, is acquired with the students gaining the expert technical knowledge.

“The second skill is critical thinking,” he adds. “Now, in the context of an academic programme, we encourage our students not to accept the norm but rather challenge it through critical thinking.”

In any mining set-up, in the present and the future, effective verbal communication skills are key, not only from an operational point of view but more importantly, to ensure safety.

However, given the fact that the younger generation’s preferred method of communication is non-verbal through texts and email, how will they survive in a mining environment?

Webber-Youngman is very aware of this fact. “In MILA, we also focus on conflict management. And one of the key issues that we amplify is that you cannot conduct conflict management via a Whatsapp message, social media and emails; you have to have it face-to-face. In order to do this, we also emphasise on the emotional intelligence (EQ) required to be able to confront an issue.

“I get really excited when I see my students are in conflict state and I tell them that they need to deal with the conflict in person and not hiding behind a cellphone – it’s a necessary skill that will help them prepares them for the workplace,” he adds.

Africa has the youngest population in the world, and sadly, 60% of its youth are unemployed. Learning the skills required needed – technical, computer and people’s skills – in 4IR will go a long way to creating new jobs and realising the continents true mining potential.

Therefore, it is commendable that Wits and Tuks are taking a lead creating the workforce of the future – one that will inevitably impact the junior mining sector, which comprises such a large contingent of new entrants into the industry.