Johannesburg, 11 September 2020 – Figures for the country’s production released this week by Statistics South Africa paint a grim picture of the local mining industry. Production output for the second quarter shrank by 73,1%, the third most affected by the global pandemic, after construction at 76,6% and manufacturing at 74,91%. And this was coming off a relatively low base: six months ago, Statistics South Africa released data on the performance of mining for 2019, showing that production was 1,3% lower than the year before. Copper and manganese had showed signs of growth, but a slump in gold and diamond production had dragged down the industry overall, with iron ore, platinum group metals and chromium also showing disappointing results.
“Never before have mining companies been under as much pressure as they are now to cut costs and increase productivity to remain viable, let alone operate profitably,” says Mike Hanley, managing director of New Leaf Technologies, a Joburg-headquartered learning software and solutions company that specialises in the mining sector.
It’s one of the reasons why New Leaf Technologies is witnessing growing momentum among large mining companies to move away from traditional facilitator-led “classroom”-style training in favour of eLearning programmes that reduce costs and increase productivity. One of South Africa’s largest and foremost black-empowered resource companies and a leading coal producer, recently signed up as an eLearning client. The world’s second-largest metals and mining corporation, and an independent global organisation of engineers and scientists consulting to the natural-resource industries, have also gone the eLearning route.
Cost savings are a major benefit for mining companies embarking on eLearning for their employees, as it does away with having to fly in, accommodate and pay a daily rate for training facilitators, eliminates the need for other non-essential training personnel, and reduces the amount of off-the-job time employees need for training. For companies with several operations scattered around the country (or the continent, or even the world), ongoing consistency is ensured, with entire workforces trained using the same content at the same level. The training content, which can be designed and sent out through a central point, is entertaining and captivating, which leaves a memorable impression on the employee. And eLearning systems have also helped mining companies to streamline their types of training and address skills gaps: eLearning is a great way of tracking employee training progress, as well as their experiences of what’s been taught, which in turn means that gaps can be quickly and efficiently addressed.
“While mining is a highly mechanical process, it’s also been heavily impacted by global digitisation,” notes Hanly. New, sophisticated technology is transforming mining operations, which means that existing skills sets are continually needing to advance, with rock-drill operators, blasters, drill-rig operators and other artisan roles being affected. For South Africa’s mining labour force to remain competitive internationally, the industry has to address these needs.
An additional wrinkle is that only 14% of miners have a post-matric qualification, according to data released by the Mining Qualifications Authority (MQA). The education level amongst the 460 000 people employed in the sector is also compromising its ability to mine more efficiently, compared to other key markets like Australia, Brazil, Canada and Chile. The MQA’s sector skills plan, released in 2018, revealed that skills shortages and experience exist too, including those of mining managers, mining planners, and mining and rock engineers.
“The quality of courseware and how it’s shared through eLearning can address many of these skills gaps, and retain staff rather than lose them,” says Hanly. New Leaf Technologies’ courseware is continually adapted to address specific challenges, with the imperative being on the elearning provider to ensure that the material is captivating and engaging, as well as meeting the educational needs of employees from a variety of demographics.
“Instructional design is important as a means of holding trainees’ attention while explaining sometimes difficult concepts,” says Hanly. For this reason, the course material is normally multimedia in nature, combining words and graphics, ensuring that it’s engaging, memorable and stimulating. A combination of 3-D modelling and animation, along with virtual reality and augmented reality material, is being increasingly integrated with course content.
“Courseware needs to grab attention, but also must be aligned with the company’s needs. It must stimulate prior knowledge and build on current skills levels. It needs to present information in a storytelling format, which may often involve gameification and interactive video. And it should be guiding in nature too, providing support to learners who may grapple with difficult concepts. To break the monotony, allowing learners to provide feedback is also a great way to retain their interest, and measure effectiveness.”
The courseware, which can be quickly designed and scaled according to a company’s needs, can also be updated on an internet-based Learning Management System (LMS) licensed to a mining company and accessed by employees anywhere in the world, or an LMS system can be set up on a company’s premises and accessed remotely, provided the employee has a reasonable internet connection.
Hanly finds the growth in global education Technology heartening, noting that the industry ballooned from R8,6 billion in venture-capital funding in 2010 to R121 billion last year, and that it’s expected to boom to over R173 trillion by 2030 as more governments, corporates and individuals take heed of the United Nation’s sustainable development goal of inclusive and equitable quality education for all. “We believe it’s only a matter of time before mining in South Africa becomes a champion for eLearning progression in this country,” he says.