Labor Transitions in the Natural Resource Sector: Mining

Eric Depenau | Contributor


As human beings, we are planners. We set goals, make choices and generally try to structure our lives in a way that makes sense. Some of us do a better job of this than others. but generally the further away something is. the worse we are about really getting down to business and making a plan. This avoidance is even more common when it is a big and possibly daunting decision. For many in BC, a plan might be lacking and tough decisions are getting closer day by day. Slowly but surely workers in the non-renewable resource industries, specifically mining, will have to ask themselves “does my job site have a closer retirement date than I do?”    

Mining in BC is a long-practiced tradition and an enormous source of provincial revenue and it will remain so well into the future. The “number of people working in direct jobs . . . [at sites surveyed by the Mining Association of BC] increased to 9,329 in 2016, compared to 9,221 in 2015 and 9,954 in 2014” (Mining Association of British Columbia, 2017). This makes the mining industry a massive employer, with entire communities, in some cases, reliant if not dependent on their operations. There is certainly a partial reliance in the case of the Cariboo Region with one of North America’s largest mines, Gibraltar, in our own backyard.

The region has long derived benefits from mineral extraction at this site, but in the not so distant future that may come to an end. Without sounding alarmist or suggesting that anyone will be out of work in the next few days, a future date has been set. In the early months of 2008, a two-phase expansion was completed at the project, bumping the estimated mine life to 17 years. At this time, in 2018, that expiry date is a decade away and well before many will be able to enjoy their pensions and look back fondly at working life. Gibraltar is not the only mine with a looming due date, and eventually workers will have to look at their plans and make a choice.

Some will ignore this cause for concern. They will say that new mines are opening or that internal transfers are possible and this is true, they are. However, moves are expensive and often straining. More daunting, in any industry where hundreds or thousands of employees reenter the job market in quick succession, there could be challenging times for those whose skills don’t line up just right with new opportunities or who are right for the job but low in line.

There is a personal responsibility to prepare for whatever may come in one’s life, but the size and scope of these decisions demand business and governments to get involved as well. Since closures are not a new phenomenon we can ask, “how has planning for these shifts gone so far?”

Researchers with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives claim, “provincial and federal levels of government . . . [are] unable or unwilling to provide the types of training and transition opportunities” necessary for labor market shifts. Instead, governments have been slow to act and are accused of peddling “hyper specialization” in trades training, leaving many without the skills to survive in boom and bust industries (Cooling et al, 2015). Those workers who are a little more seasoned might be able to escape the whole mess by pensioning out early if a closure occurs. Of course, it is likely they will lose a portion of their monthly earnings for tapping out, a poor deal for someone who has worked for decades towards their retirement. But there is hope, with the exception of accidents and disasters, closures are generally well known or at least somewhat predictable. Predictability means we can plan to get folks working, resources to market, and the government whole whenever closures happen.

These are big questions, but ones that can be answered if all the players, workers, unions, employers, and policy makers start planning for the economies and the workforce of tomorrow. Investigating the creation of internal relocation funds in case of closure or reorganization could help some. While finding ways to guarantee full pensions for those who decide to retire early may be another. Many more people may need to look at their skills and training during these moves, and here is the opportunity to look at post-secondary curriculums to make sure that education is as friendly for people moving in their careers as those just starting them. These are only ideas but the challenges are real and the time we have to answer them is ticking.