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Mining industry touts green pledges to attract talent, but Gen Z isn’t buying it

An underground mine in Tanzania. Image by Shahir Chundra via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • A massive increase in renewable energy capacity will require critical minerals, such as rare earth elements, lithium, cobalt and graphite, which mining companies and governments say can create jobs and generate wealth to the benefit of communities and the environment.
  • However, finding the next generation of employees appears to be a growing concern: A 2023 McKinsey report found 70% of its respondents aged 15-30 said they definitely or probably wouldn’t work in mining, and Australia has seen a 63% decrease in mining graduates from 2014 to 2020.
  • Mining industry insiders and representatives say that rebranding mining from its past, in part by being more responsible as well as connecting how mined minerals can be part of the solution to net zero, will be key.
  • Youth activists and community members, however, remained concerned about the persistent disconnect between mining companies’ pledges and the reality of their actions, to the detriment of people and the planet.

Tripling global renewable energy capacity was one of the headline commitments coming out of last year’s U.N. climate conference in Dubai. And increased mining of critical minerals, which are vital to feed these technologies, was a focal point at this year’s Mining Indaba, the world’s largest mining investment conference, held annually in South Africa.

As mining company executives and African leaders flew in for the event, Rio Tinto banners to “reduce our carbon footprint” and “strive to advance the social and economic interests of communities” decorated the Cape Town airport. Inside the Indaba, there was a stage dedicated to sustainability, and hallways were adorned with images of smiling community members. Speakers were buoyant in discussing net-zero emissions, nature-positive mining, and the just energy transition.

One of the factors contributing to this display, say experts, is a rebranding to attract more young people to the industry.

According to a 2023 McKinsey report, covering Australia, North America and Latin America, 70% of respondents aged 15-30 years old said they definitely or probably wouldn’t work in mining. About 71% of mining executives said a talent shortage is holding them back from delivering on production targets and strategic objectives. And 86% said it’s harder to recruit and retain talent across specialized fields like mine planning, process engineering, and data science and automation.

According to surveys and advocates, what’s holding potential workers back, particularly Gen Z, is their commitment to higher environmental and social standards — which the industry is repeatedly publicized for flunking. One way for companies to remedy this, they say, is to demonstrate strong green and human rights pledges.

“The way in which the sector projects itself has to be more responsive to what young people are concerned about and what’s really driving them,” Deborah Terry, vice chancellor and president at the University of Queensland in Australia, told Mongabay.

Regarded as one of the world’s top mining universities, the University of Queensland hosts the Sustainable Minerals Institute and research centers focusing on topics such as social responsibility, land rehabilitation, and health and safety.

“We’re part of what’s called a trailblazer in Australia, which is funding from the government in very significant areas for future jobs and future economy,” Terry said.

As a university, she said, they’re spending a lot of time thinking about how to package their programs. This includes painting the industry as one that’s critical to the transition to a net-zero future and where graduates can work in areas that will increasingly transform the face of modern mining, such as automation, machine learning, and advanced data analytics.

“Leaders in the industry need to recognize that business success, climate action and attracting the next generation of employees are indivisible,” Terry said.

Still, it’s an uphill battle. Terry told Mongabay that in Australia there’s been a 63% decrease in mining graduates from 2014 to 2020, similar to the U.S., which saw a 39% decrease from 2016 to 2020.

A miner digging for copper in DRC.
A miner digging for copper in DRC. Image by Fairphone via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Rebranding mining

Mining for transition minerals has generated hundreds of allegations of abuse with multifaceted impacts on the environment and communities. These include deforestation and destruction of biodiversity, toxic contamination of rivers, breaches of tailings dams, lack of land rehabilitation, land grabs, and lack of proper consultation with communities. One of the most scandalous recent examples was in Juukan Gorge in Australia, where, in 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto (“advance the social interests of communities”) destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site to expand an iron ore mine.

With critical minerals mining already ramping up in Africa, which contains about a fifth of these mineral reserves, community and civil society organizations are warning that rather than learning from the past, the mining industry may just be repeating itself. The target minerals and demand might be different for the clean energy sector, they say, but the process of mining is the same.

For mining executives, the need for critical minerals remains unequivocal.

“There is no energy transition without metals and minerals. They are the backbone of every renewable energy technology, be that electric cars, wind turbines [and] solar panels,” said Rohitesh Dhawan, CEO of the International Council on Mining and Minerals (ICMM), which represents 24 mining companies and a third of the global metals and mining industry.

“What I’m seeing is that people want to work for companies and sectors that contribute to creating a better world, both through the things that they produce, as well as how they produce them,” Dhawan told Mongabay. “And as a mining industry, we have to demonstrate to people that both the things we produce and the way we produce them is helping create a better world.”

The Batu Hijau mine is an open pit copper-gold mine (minerals used in renewable technologies) operated by PT. Amman Mineral Nusa Tenggara. The mine, the second largest copper-gold mine in Indonesia, caused significant deforestation and dumped tailings in the ocean before this was halted in 2021. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Over the years, Dhawan said, ICMM members have made numerous social and environmental commitments, while helping develop the guide for mining companies to meet disclosure requirements in the U.N. biodiversity framework. These include pledging to achieve net-zero direct and indirect emissions by 2050, enhancing inclusion in the industry, and, as of 2024, preventing net biodiversity loss compared to a 2020 baseline.

Rowan Phendler, director of natural resources at executive headhunting firm Cripps Leadership Advisors, said numerous mining companies have also shifted their approach to showcase products and lifestyle commodities rather than the mined environment.

“If you go to a lot of mining company websites, you don’t see the big trucks and the holes in the ground. It’s about what’s down that supply chain,” Phendler told Mongabay. “The front cover of lot of my own proposals is a wind farm or a solar farm because the mining industry can provide you [the materials] to build that.”

Phendler specializes in recruiting senior leaders for mining companies worldwide and offers guidance in identifying the next generation of industry leaders. He said that despite the promises of high pay and opportunities to travel internationally, young people — mostly in North America, Australia and Europe — seem to be avoiding the industry.

Social and environmental consciousness appears to be playing key role. A 2022 survey by business advisory firm BDO found 66% of Gen Z respondents said having a career that positively impacts local communities is important to them, and 59% said positively impacting the environment is important.

Dhawan said that while there’s less data available for Africa and Latin America, the anecdotal evidence suggests a different situation for these regions. Chilean mining giant Codelco, for instance, was ranked the country’s best company to work at for the fourth year in a row by Merco, which describes itself as the “corporate monitor reference in Latin America.”

Phendler said that besides social and environmental concerns, work flexibility, benefits and inclusivity are also becoming more important to attract diverse talent.

Some companies are getting around the skills shortage by looking at adjacent industries, like upskilling people from the oil and gas industry and “thinking outside the box.” The video game Mine Evolution, developed with the support of the Canadian government, aims to “inspire the future generations of mining,” replete with lesson plans and classroom activities.

Fossils fuels are emblematic of a “take-make-waste” economic model that is pushing humanity beyond safe limits, experts say.
The pace of the renewables transition must quicken if climate change is to be kept below 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit), experts say. Increased mining of critical minerals, which are vital to feed these technologies like solar panels, was a focal point at this year’s Mining Indaba in South Africa. Image by Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

‘Real’ changes?

Mining is just one of many industries still struggling to convince society that they’re living up to their promises. Research from Deloitte Canada found that, across various sectors, while 86% of companies have stated a “purpose beyond profit,” only 18% showed any evidence of associated change.

Relying on voluntary actions and pledges by companies doesn’t cut it, say environmental organizations. Without actual regulation and enforcement of laws to guide the industry, companies are unlikely to make the changes to meet the level of human rights and environmental standards in international agreements.

In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia and Zimbabwe, lithium mining projects appear to reproduce the same model of extractivism that has impoverished African countries for centuries, according to a Global Witness report.

“It seems like the same way of doing it now is the same way that they have been doing it before,” said Nelson Antonio, former chair of the Alternative Mining Indaba, a civil society organization created 15 years ago in parallel to the Mining Indaba because of a lack of community representation at the latter event.

“Just saying that they want to preserve better nature. They want to be inclusive. They want to make everybody profit from the activities. But that’s not true,” said Antonio, who is also a leader with Angolan natural resources NGO Tchota. “They are not thinking of the communities, they’re thinking of profits. And that’s what is being contested.”

Quarry mining. A massive increase in renewable energy capacity will require critical minerals, such as rare earth elements, lithium, cobalt and graphite Image by Parolan Harahap via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Image by Parolan Harahap via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Antonio said civil society organizations were invited to attend this year’s Mining Indaba and had meetings with the ICMM to create an agenda where representatives of communities and mining companies could listen to each other and discuss the matters the communities want to bring forward. However, because of delays entering the venue, they arrived 45 minutes late and many mining company representatives left before the session ended.

“If they really cared for change and they really cared to shift from the old way of doing things, they would have been there listening to us. And although they might have other commitments, they would have been sitting there and engaged,” Antonio said.

Some environmentalists say there’s a danger that mining companies are presenting themselves as the solution to the climate crisis and promoting the urgency of even more mining.

“Multinational corporations are driven exclusively by profit motive, their only interest is in maximizing returns for shareholders,” said Jake Simms, a just energy transition worker at the London Mining Network, a coalition that works with mining-impacted communities to hold U.K.-based or -financed mining companies to account.

“In order to do that, they need to present a veneer of social responsibility and environmental responsibility because they know that if they’re perceived negatively, that impacts that ability to open new mines and deliver profits to investors,” he said.

Simms also used to be part of People & Planet, the student campaign calling on U.K. universities to end campus recruitment activities by the oil, gas and mining industries. To date, seven U.K. universities have barred these companies from recruiting on campus, with the support of 16 student unions, the National Union of Students, and the University and College Union, which represents academic workers.

Industry insiders say not all mining companies should be tarred with the same brush. Endemic corruption and violence for licenses and land tend to be common among smaller, newer mining companies, those that seek out new mineral deposits to sell them on for profit to larger companies. Unlike medium to large mining companies, these so-called junior operators often aren’t beholden to investors and their environmental commitments. In the lithium industry, only 8% of junior mining companies reported their environmental, social and governance standards.

“Where you see less of a change is on the junior mining front where it’s a bit more of the Wild West,” Phendler said.


Banner image: An underground mine in Tanzania. Image by Shahir Chundra via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Report: Rush for ‘clean energy’ minerals in Africa risks repeating harmful extractivist model

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