Empowering the youth will ensure mining has a prosperous future

Simona Mazza, Head of Strategic Research and Marketing Services at the Youth Employment Service (YES). Image: Supplied.

Simona Mazza, Head of Strategic Research and Marketing Services at the Youth Employment Service (YES). Image: Supplied.

Published May 12, 2024


By Simona Mazza

For centuries, mining has shaped South Africa’s history, society and economy. The country’s vast reserves of precious metals and other minerals have diversified the mining sector and sustained its importance, which is why it continues to directly employ about 481,000 people according to Stats SA, and provide at least that many jobs in supporting industries, as well as generating substantial government revenue through taxes and royalties.

However, the industry currently faces both change and challenges. Infrastructure is severely constrained, reserves of traditional minerals like gold are dwindling, and there are concerns about mine safety, environmental damage and community dependence on mines.

But there are also significant opportunities: South Africa holds rich deposits of critical minerals crucial for the green energy transition, and automation, data analytics and other technologies are being adopted to improve productivity, safety and efficiency in mining operations.

Companies are also increasingly prioritising environmental responsibility and social development initiatives to minimise negative impacts and create shared value for communities – covering two of the key pillars of ESG (environmental, social and governmental) efforts.

The industry has long been on a journey to transform its workforce, including upskilling existing employees and increasing diversity and inclusion, and a key driver here is attracting more young talent into mining – which seems to hold less appeal for the current generation. The net result is a dearth of young people waiting in the wings, ready to step up with skills of the future. Simply put, there’s no talent pipeline.

And that’s what will be required – people who have the correct skills to navigate an industry that has moved from men working underground with heavy machinery, to operations that are driven by AI, robotics and automation.

The question is, how? Mines can certainly go and seek out talent at South Africa’s top schools and universities, however to do that exclusively is to ignore a large cohort of talent at South Africa’s disadvantaged schools – those high-potential individuals need to be found, nurtured and fed into the talent pipeline in preparation for the full range of mining jobs.

YES ticks many of those boxes. Look at how it’s proposed to be included into the South African Renewable Energy Masterplan (SAREM), for instance. There’s no reason mining (which is experiencing a kind of renaissance with emerging sub-sectors like renewables and hydrogen sprouting) shouldn’t take a similar approach, using the same logic: let’s find good people in the thousands who could start to be integrated into the industry through YES’s 12-month work experience programme – placing them in relevant, future-facing roles the industry requires.

There are three ways mining companies are currently working with YES. The first is that youth are working in their head offices, like Kumba Iron Ore is doing. The second option is to place youth within the mining supply chain like Hillside has done, ensuring that their suppliers are supported with young talent.

Finally, mines can go the route Anglo American Platinum have gone, which is to place youth in NPOs within the mining communities, which has an impact on their ESG/SDG targets, and social and labour plans.

Since it started, YES has evolved. It now has over 1,700 corporates participating and is the biggest youth employment programme funded solely by the private sector. Historically it was a place for people to boost their B-BBEE ratings, but that’s starting to shift. Twenty percent of the jobs at YES now cater for companies who are trying to boost their sustainability impact outcomes – because youth employment can be added to those scorecards