MEETING THE CHALLENGES OF MINING THROUGH TRAINING AND UP-SKILLING THE LOCAL WORKFORCE
By Matt Pascall
The mining industry has undergone unprecedented changes in recent years, pushing the boundaries of automation. Despite these changes, lack of skills and knowledge transfer are among the challenges affecting the improvement and growth of the mining sector, not just here in Africa, but the world over. One of the key requirements to operate in Africa is to train and up-skill the local workforce. This is a worthy objective, but some skills, not least that of management itself, are products of experience and require more time. It is impractical to force timetables for transferring skills. To increase efficiency, productivity and the overall success of any business, employees must have the right knowledge and key competences for a particular job.
Enhancing knowledge and key competences
A long-term solution must address the skills gap between expatriates and local people that reflects a shortage of highly skilled and qualified employees. Skills training provides an opportunity for the company to expand the knowledge base of its employees, while enhancing their overall performance. First Quantum Minerals has invested in skills training for its employees and provided a development pathway to helps them progress in the company. It has a comprehensive skills development programme already improving operations and boosting workforce productivity. The mining firm believes having a strong and successful training strategy is key to creating quality long-term employment. Employees with access to training and development programmes will feel better valued and perform in line with the company’s expectations.
Improving the quality of basic education
In my years of experience working in Africa I have encountered many challenges from which I have developed key learnings to share. Most critically, we must improve the quality of education across Africa for future generations. The problem of up-skilling is compounded if basic education is lacking. First Quantum has concentrated its sustainability efforts on education. This covers pre-school, schooling, tertiary scholarships, artisan training, and training the local communities in skills such as conservation farming. When we assessed schooling in Zambia and built six schools, besides sponsoring over 40 government schools surrounding our mines, we reviewed statistics on Zambian education standards – and were shocked at the results. Many challenges facing companies – not just in the mining sector – are caused by the low level of general education. Poor education affects basic human activity such as understanding nutrition, which then worsens the capacity to receive education. Improving education is not simply a matter of spending more. Outside of welfare payments, South Africa spends the highest portion of its national budget on education, but the commitment of teachers and educationists to provide quality education is lacking, committing future generations to ignorance and poverty. What is needed is a genuine desire to improve standards. Lowering the bar is not acceptable. This requires countries to look to the future and stop looking backwards. Leaders must accept responsibility for the situation, to stop blaming something or someone else. FQM has put in place a comprehensive skills development programme already helping improve operations in the mining firm’s projects and boost its workforce. Besides giving more jobs to locals, the mine is offering its workers training opportunities, to empower them and improving their contribution to the mine.
Creating quality long-term employment for local people
True jobs are only created by the private sector; not by governments. and even then, only by private sector investment, so everything possible must be done to encourage it. Foreign Direct Investment from the mines delivers this in large numbers, probably second only to agriculture. First Quantum has paid over US$2bn in salaries in Zambia. This translates into tangible step changes in the quality of life for thousands of Zambians. The mining firm believes direct employment is one of the key benefits a mine delivers in social and economic impact. Skills training, entrepreneurial programmes and efforts to foster local economic development are also vital for long-term sustainable prosperity. It is also vital, too, to encourage private sector investment – without which there can be no new jobs. To do so, African governments must remove the levels of bureaucracy required to establish private companies, and remove bureaucracy in the free flow of material, machines, goods, and people.
Enabling a thriving private sector
Governments must set up competitive, clear and table tax regimes. Governments must uphold the notion that every person is equal under the law and stamp out corruption by ensuring all public tenders are transparent. We must not forget that our people are our primary resource, and so African governments must pay their (small) bureaucracy well to do their jobs well.
Finally, we must learn to look ahead towards overcoming our challenges, towards improvement and growth, not backwards into the past. Development of the local economy in which any company operates is a key priority identified during on-going dialogue with local communities.
Mines across the world need constant investment in hardware, exploration, and modernisation. When the global economy presents challenges, as it can be depended on to do so, whether as part of the global financial crises or through the so-called commodity super-cycle, it falls to governments to make their jurisdictions the most attractive in which to place investment.
The most important element of making Zambia competitive is stability – stability in tax and royalty regime, stability in major costs such as electricity or fuel, and stability in labour. Fundamental to long-term private sector investment is knowing what the costs will be for the life of the investment.
Striking a balance
A natural equilibrium must be sought that sees locals get their fair share; to realise benefit from their own country’s natural endowment, while making investments a true business proposition.
To arrive at this equilibrium requires close and constant dialogue; and this cannot be taken for granted. As in any good marriage it must be worked at. There will be disagreements and squabbles, but accommodation through compromise will always pay a dividend. This has characterised most of the private sector’s relationship with governments for many years now.
First Quantum maintains an open and honest dialogue with the Zambian Government at the highest-level; particularly on those issues which have a material effect on the attractiveness of Zambia as an investment jurisdiction: tax and royalty stability, electricity stability and tariffs and VAT refunds being amongst the most critical. These discussions are on-going and although subject to much conjecture (which the press often misreports), the reality is the conversation is warm, open and honest. First Quantum enjoys a close and cordial relationship with government; something we value tenormously.
Matt Pascall is First Quantum Minerals Director of Operations