Preparing for more robots in Yukon mining

Increased automation means the territory has to be prepared for changes in the mining industry

By Lewis Rifkind

Mining creates jobs but jobs are fickle things. Not only humans can do them. Robots and computers can also do them too, and usually do them cheaper and better than humans

Signs of that are obvious, Automated Teller Machines have somewhat replaced human bank tellers. Even ATMs are now being somewhat replaced by online banking applications on smartphones and computers. Certain coffee shops now have automated coffee makers. Press a button and instant, freshly brewed java pours into your cup. Think of how many baristas those machines have replaced.

The mining industry is not immune to these changes. According to a report developed by the McKinsey Global Institute, A future that works: Automation, employment, and productivity (January 2017), 96% of some mining jobs, such as continuous mining machine operators, can be automated.

Occasionally the Yukon Conservation Society delves into the social and economic benefits, such as job opportunities, that mining can create.

Outside of Whitehorse with its huge bureaucracy and associated businesses, most jobs are restricted to a limited number of positions with local governments, seasonal tourism opportunities, and a few private businesses.

The move to automation in mining is going to have implications for the Yukon and the well-paying jobs that the industry provides here.

Skills are taught, and these are often transferable skills. Being a camp cook for a mining exploration project means one could be a commercial cook almost anywhere. A trained truck driver on a mining site should be able to find work driving trucks anywhere.

But imagine a scenario where even large scale mines have few human employees, thus limiting the need for many camp cooks. Truck drivers could soon be replaced by a couple of sensors and a few lines of computer code.

Certain mining jobs are already on the way out. Look at the innovations that some Yukon companies are performing in the field. Thanks to the use of drones looking for magnetic anomalies and small-sized, low-surface- impact vehicles, the amount of workers required to cut seismic line, take ore samples, and prepare access trails can be dramatically reduced. That is because the new technology does away with the need for most of those workers who formally did the old style of work.

In a subtle twist there could be more jobs created in analyzing all the data those drones are providing. Those analyst jobs do require quite a high degree of training and experience, so they won’t be available for everyone. And this work can be done anywhere on the planet thanks to telecommuting. As a further quirk in the employment model, no doubt computer programs are being developed right now that will analyze the data, thus displacing some of the data analysts.

There is a trend towards electric vehicles to operate both underground and in open pits. Electric vehicles require less servicing by mechanics, which results in less demand for mechanics. There are also rumours of driverless vehicles coming to a mine site near you. Goldcorp, owners of the Coffee Gold project south of Dawson, has an innovation strategy that includes the possibility of autonomous mining operations with driverless trucks.

An open pit can be a pretty risky place to have humans driving large trucks around, which is part of the incentive to have driverless vehicles. The other big driver of getting rid of humans is cost. Instead of paying for a lot of human drivers, one computer programmer could keep all the robotic trucks moving on their assigned tasks.

There are serious social-economic implications in all of this. One of the benefits of resource extraction is offering local jobs at decent wages. Local communities might not be as accepting of mining if there are not as many jobs being offered as before.

Less local employment means less local income. This might force politicians to rethink how royalties are calculated. As it currently stands, Yukon’s resource royalties are, in the opinion of YCS, too low. One gets the sense that politicians accept these low royalties in the tradeoff of getting local jobs. This might have to be rethought if fewer local jobs are forthcoming. The money from higher royalties could be transferred to local communities for programs that help compensate for the lack of work.

It also means that training institutions are going to have to rethink some of the courses they currently offer. There is no point teaching individuals how to drive heavy trucks if in the near future that employment opportunity is no longer available.

Mining will continue to offer jobs and employment to Yukoners. However, the nature and number of those jobs will be different from what is being offered now. This is one more good reason for the Yukon to reform the territory’s royalty regime to ensure mining is economically and socially responsible.

Lewis Rifkind is the mining analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society