University of British Columbia thesis examines Teck Resources implementing autonomous mining at Highland Valley Copper as pilot program.

Clara de Holanda Araujo’s paper “Automation and Skill Evolution: Examining the Impact on Workforce Skillsets in the Mining Industry” uses Highland Valley Copper (HVC) and Teck Resources as a case study on the growing field of autonomous mining.

According to Araujo, “the mining industry has entered Industry 4.0, which has redefined technology’s role in the processing of minerals and metals…That is, entry-level jobs with manual, repetitive and physical characteristics, such as truck drivers, are at high risk of being replaced by automation with the adoption of autonomous haulage systems”

For Araujo’s research, she interviewed various employees from Teck Resources, United Steelworker personnel involved with Highland Valley Copper, and Mining Industry Human Resources.

“Maintaining the privacy of the participants was essential and at the start of the interviews the interviewer asked each of the interviewees how they would like to be addressed on the research,” said Araujo in her paper. “The interviewer suggested using a job title and the company or institution they were representing.”

Teck Resources is a Vancouver based resource firm with operations across North and South America. As a part of Teck’s RACE21 initiative, Teck is testing automation processes at HVC that could be implemented globally.

Currently autonomous haulage systems and Shovel-Sense technology are being tested at HVC. According to Teck Resources, Shovel-Sense technology  “uses sensors on the shovel buckets to analyze the chemical composition of the rock in the bucket and can classify the material as waste or ore in real-time.”

According to the World Economic Forum, nearly 20 per cent of mining and metal workers globally are at risk of being entirely replaced by machines by 2030. Seventy per cent of the mining workforce, those in occupations such as hauling, drilling, and blasting, are at high vulnerability according to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR).

Despite risks, Teck Resources has committed to not reducing its workforce due to automation, specifically for the HVC mine. Despite the commitment, “there is still a common fear amongst its employees and communities of interest that fewer opportunities will exist for them due to higher qualifications need,” read Araujo’s thesis.

“One of the key risks is that your entry-level occupations tend to be where mining companies hire the bulk of their workforce, and those entry-level roles are stepping stones for a number of other occupations in the industry,” said a MiHR employee. “When they build a new mine in a community, part of that social license to operate is that the mining company will provide local jobs, will provide entry-level positions for the Community, and that’s part of the social license to operate.”

Despite fears of job loss, some employees see automation as an opportunity to develop and renew their skills.

“There’s a bunch of training that we do; like, you can’t just hop into an autonomous zone. There’s a whole pile of different training that’s required, but it’s all mostly internal training at this point,” said a Teck Resources employee.

As automation continues the concept of a “just transition” has become increasingly prominent in different industries, not just mining.

Araujo cites a paper by Raphael J. Heffron, “although the concept is broad and controversial in its ability to be accurately defined the general idea behind a ‘just transition’ is any of the following “climate justice concerns sharing the benefits and burdens of climate change from a human rights perspective; energy justice refers to the application of human rights across the energy life cycle; and environmental justice aims to treat all citizens equally and to involve them in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

According to Araujo’s research, there is a shared perspective within Teck Resources that the firm plays a significant role in providing employment for local communities.

“Teck has goals to increase the number of local and Indigenous employees, as well as local and Indigenous suppliers, and I think we have that responsibility, especially at Teck since many of our mines have been around for decades,” said a Teck employee.

Araujo concludes that automation will have benefits such as improved productivity, decreased operating costs, improved enviromental footprint, and employee safety.

However, there is also significant risk with automation such as sociallicense to operate and obsolescence of many entry level mining jobs.

“We talked about post-mining. Are the communities really benefiting in the long term from the mine? It is about people, right? And I don’t think that we’ve looked at it through that lens, nor have we been as intentional as we need to be moving forward,” said a Teck Resources employee.