Russian-British Raw Materials Dialogue: The Final Day
Out of the many challenges that mining industry is facing nowadays, the Dialogue’s participants placed specific attention to whittling down deficit of skilled engineers through competency assessment and development. The particular importance of this problem is caused by ever increasing requirements to be met by professionals. In addition, mineral resources extraction is a process that has become more complex and sophisticated.
Anthony Benham, Principal Exploration Geologist at SRK Exploration Services, notes that all deposits rich in valuable component and situated at easily accessible locations have already been explored. At the same time, new deposits, which are to be developed by today's students or schoolchildren, are usually located in remote regions with harsh climates, whilst prospecting for those is to be conducted at greater depths.
Discovery of new deposits is a time-consuming process that incurs heavy financial expenditures. Besides, extracting profit from exploiting low-grade deposits is nearly impossible without utilisation of the new technologies - including, computer data processing, passive seismic tomography, heap leaching, and some others. Despite that introduction of these technologies positively results production efficiency, engineer tasks are at the same time becoming more and more complicated, since engineering specialists have to introduce innovations into production and monitor if they are operated safely.
As stressed out by Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of St. Petersburg Mining University, those deposits, which were not considered worthy of development 5 to 7 years ago, are generating profits these days. Such values as 0.8 grams of gold per ton of ore or 0.6% of copper have now become a reason to invest. However, mining company executives not only want to be sure in efficiency of technology chains, but also in competency level of those who run them.
According to Vladimir Litvinenko, "Modern mining enterprises require highly educated specialists who completed work experience internship, meet the threshold requirements of the industry and know professional standards. I am convinced that a specialist can be trusted with, for example, a drilling rig only if he holds a certificate issued by the professional community or, in other words, his level of competency was confirmed by professionals. This idea has been already put into practice, and a number of mineral companies understand the importance of doing so. However, a new question has arisen: who will be responsible for training those engineers?"
Zoya Zaitseva, Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at QS (UK-based university ranking agency), holds a similar opinion. She pointed out the lack of clear standards which could be applied to measure quality of the teaching staff. Some attempts to develop them, however, have been done in the UK and the US. For example, students in those countries undergo regular interviews where they are asked to share opinions on the relevancy of subjects taught to them and the professional quality of teachers. By doing so, university leaders can be more objective with competency assessments and evaluation of communication skills.
Anthony Benham mentions another serious problem which may negatively affect the future of mining – unwillingness of school students to get mining education. Due to climate change campaigns pushing the idea of causing lesser damage to the environment, mineral resources sector is mostly seen by younger generations as environmentally dirty business.
As Mr. Benham noted, "We should not only encourage highly qualified specialists to stay in the industry, but we must also promote its popularisation in society. Today less and less school graduates enter mining universities - in particular, there are less students studying geology. Therefore, there is a risk of deterioration of human capital in the future.”
Zoya Zaitseva urged heads of the universities to learn how to underline advantages of their schools so as to attract more applicants. For instance, study groups in Russia are smaller than in some other countries, which is a good reason for choosing it as a study destination for those who aim to study abroad - less students in a group implies potentially higher level of knowledge.
As Zoya Zaitseva explained, "Teaching quality is very important for young people. There was a survey, according to which out of 75 thousand students 58% said it was the most important factor for them, while reputation among employers was in the second place. Most of the universities do not pay enough attention to working closely with business and manufacturing sectors though. Meanwhile, relations between businesses and universities are very important for future students when making their university choices.”
Ian Bowbrick, Director of Membership and Professional Standards at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), provided more insight into the matter of certification of mining engineers. According to him, there are strict industry standards in the UK, and the vast majority of engineers are members of professional communities. Prior accreditation is required to become registered and achieve membership status.
As Colin Church, Chief Executive of IOM3, gave more details on the importance of accreditation, ”If you are a professional member of the Institute, then you have access to a range of benefits – most importantly, professional recognition. If you meet somebody and the person’s business card says that she or he is a professional member, you can be sure that this is a proof of competence and reaching certain level in the profession. For some people, this membership is also a license to practice. That means they must have it in order to be able to do that job. For example, if somebody wishes to sign off reports on how much mineral resource or reserve there is in a deposit, that person must be professional with that expertise and competent to do so.”
As for now, British and Russian colleagues are involved in establishing a similar sort of system in Russia. The experts say this system will help with improving competencies of mining specialists and ensuring their qualifications are recognised abroad.