Why investing in behavioural skills is critical for mining’s sustainability

Article by: Arjen de Bruin, Managing Director at OIM Consulting

Over the past few years, both government and the corporate sector have invested some serious effort, energy and resources into skills development within the mining industry.

As a key employer of vulnerable groups and a sector that generates significant revenue for the country, this comes as no surprise. According to the Minerals Council South Africa (SA), an accumulative R6 billion was allocated to mining skills development and training in 2017 and 2018. No small change.

However, I would argue that while there has been a focus on technical training initiatives, there has not been sufficient emphasis on coaching mining supervisors in critical behavioural skills that would enable them to perform their jobs more effectively.

Why is this? Out of all the “hard-man” industries, mining is indisputably the Clint Eastwood of them all. As a historically male-dominated sector, we’ve kept our focus fixed firmly on the technical stuff. How to drill and blast. We’ve got user manuals for days, long lists of standard operating procedures, and of course, the safety training which is integral to a high-risk work environment.

These technical skills often mean the difference between life and death and so they are rightfully prioritised. But they’re also not the only things that are important.

Instilling behavioural and problem-solving skills is far more complex. As a supervisor, how do you have difficult conversations with your team? How do you employ a more carrot-than-stick-based approach to coax the best out of the people under you? How do you drive culture in a way that motivates and energises? How do you solve the operational challenges that arise daily? These questions are often ignored, as we default to the hard man’s first port of call: we yell to be heard.

If you’ve promoted someone to a supervisor role, you’ve done so because they’ve proven their proficiency in the technical aspects of the job. It’s your duty to now ensure that they’re equipped to lead. This is the only way we will be able to effectively bolster our output, consistently reach targets and improve productivity across the industry at large. And this is where we now need our skills development programmes to focus.

The impact of digitisation

The digitisation of the global mining industry remains a global imperative, but in SA – where most of our mines are not yet completely mechanised – we lag. However, change is coming and this will influence how we structure and train our teams, driving a shift in their daily functions.

Automation will become more prominent, with many of the current day-to-day manual tasks soon to be handled by machines. This doesn’t mean the human role becomes redundant; it just means that there will be a recalibration, and this is where behavioural coaching and problem-solving skills will play a critical role.

Training in new technologies will become increasingly important, but again – mechanisation alone will not boost a mine’s output, nor will machines ever be able to replicate the empathy and judgement of a person; motivate and inspire a team; or solve operational obstacles. It will become critical for our supervisors to step up and into their new roles.

Empowering the workforce

Behavioural skills coaching is also important not only because boosts a mine’s output, but also because it empowers people.

With coaching, workers become increasingly competent, which improves their confidence. This newfound confidence results in more focus and less panic, streamlining the execution of daily activities. Improved execution leads to increased output which often comes with a financial reward or incentive – and so it becomes a circle, encouraging the individual to keep performing, and companies to keep upskilling.

If we can coach an individual to the point where they are confident in executing their daily tasks, we create more wealth as well as meaning for the individual. Teaching the workforce how to plan, communicate and problem-solve are the kinds of transferable skills that not only help at work, but also in their homes and communities.