The mining industry, led by the iron ore majors, is automating mine sites at a rapid rate, prompting fears those in the industry will have to give up their jobs to robots.

But several speakers at this week’s two-day Association of Mining Companies (AMEC) Convention in Perth set out to dispel the myth that there will be “mass unemployment”.

WA Mines Minister Bill Johnston said there are already around 200 driverless trucks in operation on Western Australia, with another 240 “coming soon”.

“That’s more driverless vehicles in Western Australia than in California,” he told delegates.

“Autonomous technology is transforming other parts of our industry, including with Rio Tinto’s AutoHaul, which has been operating since July last year.

“We are rapidly evolving our industry here in Western Australia and by 2025 we expect that many Western Australian mines will be autonomous with decisions being made by machine learning and predictive analysis.”

Rio’s AutoHaul is the world’s first heavy-haul, long-distance autonomous rail operation.

Check it out:

This rapid push to automate mines, however, is less about job losses and more about needing different skillsets.

“Increased deployment of digital technologies is driving a transformation in our workplaces and our people,” Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) chair Vanessa Guthrie said.

“One that is also coupled with the challenge of now having five generations in the workplace – stretching from baby boomers to millennials.

“However, contrary to some current popular commentary, technological tools such as artificial intelligence are unlikely to cause mass unemployment.”

Earlier this year, the MCA commissioned EY to undertake an analysis of the future of work – a detailed look at the future skills, training and technology trends in the Australian mining industry.

“The headline finding by EY was that 77 per cent of jobs in Australian mining will be enhanced or redesigned due to technology within the next five years,” Guthrie explained.

EY mapped every job from exploration to customer services and the skills that are needed for each job along that chain.

“From this map, they were able to identify what technologies were being deployed, what new skills were needed to accompany them and most critically, what this means for our workforce,” Guthrie said.

“The stand-out fact was that EY’s study found that it is a myth that technology will take or destroy jobs.”

Check out the figures:

  • 42 per cent of jobs will remain the same except for additional technology and skills;
  • 35 per cent of jobs will remain familiar but will be ‘redesigned’ to make the best of the new technology; and
  • the remaining 23 per cent of jobs might be open to automation.

“These findings reflect those of Frey and Osborne in 2013, which found that while 47 per cent of jobs in the United States are at high risk of being replaced by computer algorithms in the next 20 years, many of the professional roles in mining are unlikely to be among them,” Guthrie said.

“There is a less than 2 per cent chance that engineering and scientific roles are likely to be replaced any time soon.”

Dr Alexandra Heath, head of the economic analysis department for the Reserve Bank of Australia, told delegates that while autonomous haulage would replace multiple truck drivers with a single controller, there would also be a bunch of other job roles required.

“Unlike a truck driver, a controller must be highly computer literate and be able to solve a different nature of problems to what the truck driver was required to solve,” she said.

“But autonomous trucks also require communications technology that needs to be maintained and this increases the demand for highly skilled communications technicians.

“And if we look slightly deeper into the crystal ball, changes in demand for different types of skills are likely to continue as electric mining equipment and vehicles become more common place and robots replace human miners, particularly in more dangerous environments.

“These examples suggest that mining is going to become increasingly reliant on people with IT skills of various kinds.

“It is important to emphasise … that it does not follow that fewer people will be employed overall.”