First Nations may be answer to aging mining workforce

OTTAWA — Canadian miners are getting old.

OTTAWA — Canadian miners are getting old.

The workers driving the trucks, controlling the big machines and heading underground everyday are growing grey and sooner rather than later will be headed for retirement just as commodity prices head through the roof, driven by demand from China.

But Laurie Sterritt has a solution.

Sterritt, executive director of the B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Association, said with a province rich in natural resources and an aboriginal community struggling to participate fully in the job market, the answer is obvious.

In the 2006 census, the median age of the aboriginal population was 25, while for non-aboriginals it was 40, Sterritt said.

“It is a very basic equation of increasing aboriginal participation in education that not only fills that labour and skills shortage in the provincial economy, but it will also positively affect individuals,” she said.

A survey last year by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council found that more than one-third of the workforces at the companies questioned would be eligible to retire in the next five years.

The council estimated that of the roughly 200,000 people working in the mining sector, the number of workers over 50 was two to five times the number of those below age 30 in virtually all job categories.

And while the council expects the number of jobs will continue to decline in the coming years, due to gains in productivity and other factors, its forecast calls for cumulative hiring requirements of more than half of the current industry workforce by 2020.

With more than 300 exploration projects and a score of major operating mines in the province, the aging mine workforce presents an opportunity for the young aboriginal population in B.C.

The B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Association helps aboriginal people prepare for jobs in the mining industry with partnerships with mines and projects around the province including Teck Resources’s (TSX:TCK.B) Highland Valley copper mine.

“We come in and help make sure the skills and credentials are all up to date and will meet the needs of the operation,” she said.

Sterritt said tapping into the local aboriginal workforce just doesn’t help the community, but can offer benefits for the mining companies too.

“It is very expensive to bring people from other locations to work,” he said.

“It is hard on the families and it hard on individuals and it is expensive, so this is really a win-win all around to be able to attract the local First Nations.”

Mark Taylor of the Aboriginal Workforce Development Initiative in New Brunswick said the program in that province, which started in 2009, is on track provide training to 150 people and find guaranteed employment for at least 50 by the end of March, a year ahead its plan.

The initiative, which counts PotashCorp (TSX:POT) and its mine in Sussex, N.B., among its partners, helps place workers in a variety of industries.

“We allow the employer to tap into a very eager and young talent pool of potential workers and a pool of potential workers that is growing quite quickly,” he said.

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