The global mining industry is facing a skills gap that a new, joint industry-college program in Canada’s hard-rock heartland is looking to fill by offering specialty training for battery electric equipment maintenance
Heavy-duty equipment technician Jason Keller knows the mining world is changing at a rapid pace.
In the past five years, the industry has been making a deliberate pivot from all-diesel, all-the-time to electrification and Keller, who works in the Sudbury area, knew that he and his colleagues — above and below ground — were going to be on the front lines of a change they were not sufficiently prepared for.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a shift in technology happening, I think it’s definitely already here. We see it every day underground as the technology is already there,” says Keller in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “The biggest problem we’re seeing, initially, with the introduction of this technology is that the training isn’t there. And without the training, people are hesitant to work on these pieces of equipment because we don’t know anything about them.”
Keller is one of the first mining professionals to take a new electric machinery training program — a joint initiative between Cambrian College and MacLean Engineering — looking to fill the skills gap in Canada’s mining industry. It should be a critical program, says Keller, that will not only upskill industry workers, but bring education, safety and awareness about electrification in mining.
“I think the technology kind of showed up before the policies,” he says. “Having some training programs that are accredited by the government…I think it should definitely be mandatory.”
Canada setting an example
Canada’s mining industry is one of the fastest transitioning to electric vehicles in the world and as such the sector is looked to for examples of best practices and lessons learned.
One of the things becoming clear as Canadian miners blaze new trails is that an equally rapid upskilling of the supporting workforce around the machine is needed to maximize the benefits of an electric mining vehicle transition.
“We are in a skilled labour shortage,” says Stella Holloway, general manager at Sudbury, Ont.-based MacLean Engineering in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
“It’s really pivotal in the transition, because you can build and manufacture the equipment, but getting operator adoption and helping the mines transition over safely is a conversation that really wasn’t occurring at the same time as the technology development and the adoption.”
In response to this looming roadblock to seamless and swift adoption MacLean decided to look down the road to Cambrian College — an already well-respected post-secondary school in the mining sector — to form a specialty program: Industrial Battery Electric Vehicle Maintenance Course. It is, Cambrian and MacLean believe, the first program of its kind in Canada, though there are some similar education initiatives happening internationally.
“Be Future Ready” is the Cambrian course slogan. With this message, students, teachers and MacLean are forging into a new age of Canadian mining; ensuring a well-rounded, competitive and safe approach along the way.
Ready, set, repair
According to StatsCan data from 2017 (the most recently available), there were 71,010 jobs in the mining and quarry industries. Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan were the leading employment provinces in the sectors. It’s unknown how many of these workers are trained in electric equipment operation and repair, but it’s obvious to the industry the advancements aren’t happening in synchronization.
“The mismatch in skills was becoming more and more dire. Where we are coming from on this course was entirely born out of industry need,” says Stephen Gravel, manager at the Centre for Smart Mining at Cambrian College in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
“Some people have 30 years of experience in diesel, and none of them are EV technicians. There was a skills gap that we noticed that might eventually be its own trade designation, but, for the time being, there needs to be a training product to build up skill for some of these diesel technicians, so that they can adopt electric vehicles quickly.”
Gravel and Holloway are spearheading the Cambrian College course. The program, which launched this year, consists of four modules through online or in-person learning: fundamentals of BEV safety, introduction to BEV mobile equipment, introduction to BEV communication and troubleshooting, and practical BEV training. So far roughly two dozen students have taken courses in the program so far and the courses will be delivered year-round to maximize convenience.
A large part of the program takes place at MacLean’s all-electric underground testing site in Sudbury where “participants will have the opportunity to train on equipment to put their knowledge from the previous three modules to the test” describes the syllabus.
It’s a mutually beneficial partnership for both of the founding partners and the students who are upskilling themselves.
“Having this additional feather in your cap of hands-on training for a battery electric vehicles, really just makes you that much more marketable to the industry,” says Holloway.
It also, says Gravel, assuages some serious concerns in the industry about operational safety (not just for electric, but for all equipment) that can be especially amplified when the technology is new.
“We’re dealing with high voltage, there’s an inherent danger in that,” says Gravel. “When you talk to any sort of mining professional, they always say, ‘We need the right training.'”
Hands-on experience “paramount”
The Cambrian/MacLean program is not the first EV-ready training program in the world — both Holloway and Gravel point to Sweden as another world-leader in electric machinery adoption training — but it is perhaps unique among the handful that currently exist.
It’s unusual in a time when the technology is so new and the electrified mine ecosystem not yet complete in most parts of the world that students are able to walk just down the road to get real-world experience in working in an electrified mine.
But at Cambrian that’s exactly what happens.
Electric Autonomy Canada has previously reported on MacLean’s all-electric underground testing site, but that it can also double as a living classroom is an added boon for all.
“We have cut our teeth on BEV technology, we’re learning from it, we’re making the mistakes, we’re troubleshooting the issues and this has helped to make us experts in this technology,” says Holloway.
“The technicians who are entering into this program are going to have access to real battery electric vehicle equipment. They’re going to have hands-on training and they’re going to learn from industry experts that have been part of developing this technology. It’s paramount. It’s absolutely mandatory.”
Unfortunately, the onset of the many waves of the COVID-19 pandemic halted the practical training component of the Cambrian course, however both the college, MacLean and the first two cohorts of students in the program are eager to complete the curriculum for the first graduates once the public health all-clear is given. Cambrian hopes that will come later in 2021 or early 2022.
Until then, though, both Cambrian and MacLean are smoothing out any wrinkles in the classroom portions of the program and are in active discussions about how to export the teachings to other mining-heavy jurisdictions both in Canada and around the world. Already the material has been translated into Spanish and the next step, says Gravel is to establish a French arm of the course.
“We want to be able to share the learnings we’ve had,” he says.
Opportunity for government support
The Canadian mining industry is already working overtime to future-proof itself by pioneering electric adoption and leading in the transition. But mining companies and equipment OEMs aren’t able to do it alone. There is a critical policy component that needs to be taken on with equal vigour.
“This needs to be done with universities, this needs to be done with the trade regulatory bodies, this needs to be something that Canada decides we’re going to do big time,” says Gravel.
Holloway says the government has been interested in finding out how the mining industry is changing course with technology, but, “we have to support companies that are transitioning over to battery electric vehicles.”
Gravel believes what would go a long way now is having the mining workforce feel supported in their efforts to up-skill, through realizing on-the-job benefits — be it higher wages, better working conditions or more job opportunities. Without those the argument to return to the classroom can be challenging and that leaves Canada and Canadian workers in a bad spot.
“I think if we don’t have a strategy on how to train for these future vehicles, as they enter our lives, more and more, we’ll be in trouble,” says Gravel. “Because we’re going to get that talent from elsewhere — that talent can be trained elsewhere. The troubleshooting be done elsewhere. And then we’re just not in a good position competitively.”