The following is an article from Dr Kim Le Roux which appeared in the SSIM 2023 Supplement
A skills assessment framework to improve the technical capability of key mining disciplines
by Dr Kim Le Roux, Rio Tinto
One of the biggest risks facing the mining industry is the critical shortage of highly skilled technical people to identify and develop safe and profitable operations around the world. Further, current trends in degree selection indicate there will be an ongoing decline in the number of university graduates with qualifications suitable for direct application in the mining sector. The current and ongoing skills shortage covers a wide range of disciplines including mining engineering, civil engineering, geotechnical engineering, hydrogeology, geology, and process engineering. This is happening against a backdrop of significant changes in technology that is likely to dramatically change the work that these professionals conduct on a daily basis.
Rio Tinto, like many others in the industry, is implementing a multilayered approach to mitigate this serious risk. The strategy is both forward looking – aiming to influence the number of professionals that will enter these professions and develop technology to automate aspects of these critical roles – and focused on addressing the current skills shortage.
One of the areas Rio Tinto has recently had success in when addressing the immediate skills shortage has been developing and implementing a discipline-specific skills assessments process across all commodities and business units to develop an understanding of the current capability within that discipline inside the organisation. With this baseline understanding of the capability of the organization, it possible to develop a discipline upskilling program that specifically addresses identified gaps in capability. This can take the form of current commercially available courses, working with training institutions to develop the identified training material or by developing bespoke inhouse training experiences to close gaps.
Geotechnical engineering was one of the first disciplines engaged to implement the skills assessments process in early 2020. The first step in the process was to poll technical leaders and management from each business unit on, firstly, what are important skills for the business unit and, secondly, an honest evaluation of where current teams stood.
The initial polling was then used to establish a capability development playbook (Figure 1) and a comprehensive set of skills upon which geotechnical practitioners would be evaluated against. The full evaluation list is robust and comprehensive, with 23 skills categories and over 100 total skill elements. Elements range from direct technical skills (e.g. characterisation, modelling, and monitoring interpretation) to people and leadership skills including project management, stakeholder engagement, communication and advising.
Once skills were defined, geotechnical practitioners throughout the business participated in the skills check, along with their direct leaders. They first completed a self-evaluation step selecting from four levels of competency: level 1 – awareness, level 2 – basic, level 3 – proficient and level 4 – mastery to describe their competency against each of the identified skills. Then their direct line leader or selected reviewer completed a secondary evaluation.
Once the skills check results were completed, Rio Tinto had a powerful dataset that could be analysed for many uses and in multiple subsets including:
- Rio Tinto group wide.
- Commodity based.
- Specific countries.
- Specific sites.
- Leader versus individual.
An example of the data available to a geotechnical team leader is shown in Figures 2 and 3. This data is for an open pit geotechnical team, so it is not surprising that the skills applicable to underground mining are rated very low and were not considered in the targeted upskilling process.
A detailed analysis of the data by the Rio Tinto Iron Ore geotechnical leadership team revealed trends in proficiency and helped identify capability gaps within the team. Understanding these gaps meant that a focused upskilling program targeting a ‘critical few’ items in 2021. These included:
- Using commercially available courses to upskill most of the team on pore pressure interpretation.
- Procure bespoke structural geology training for the geotechnical team.
- Procure additional supplier-provided refresher courses on radar and prism monitoring systems.
- Enable more opportunity for technical mentoring and on the job training by providing each individual with a detailed development plan based on their individual skills assessment and considering the broader team capabilities.
The upskilling program developed and implemented in 2021 provided a good framework to carry forward further initiatives into 2022 and beyond, and align to the overall Rio Tinto capability matrix.
In 2022, the skills check survey was run again and compared against 2020
data. Figure 4 shows the average rating from the same geotechnical team as before for both the 2020 and 2022 surveys. The data suggests a substantial improvement in the average skill rating of the team demonstrating the value of the playbook and conducting detailed skills assessments, defining centralised skills criteria, and using data for targeted skills uplift initiatives
worked to develop individuals and teams.
K Le Roux, Rio Tinto