After completing his internship at a mine in Rustenburg, he soon found his chosen career to be boring and repetitive.
It was a big disappointment for Tshabalala, who started his studies amid a mining boom that provided newly minted engineers with seemingly high salaries.
It wasn’t long before he applied for a job in the banking industry.
“We all had the same expectation in the beginning, but on the ground, I wasn’t excited anymore. So I decided to look for something else hoping it would pay off,” he said.
Tshabalala is not the only graduate who walked away from the engineering profession due to a lack of familiarity with the opportunities available in the sector.
Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman, head of Mining Engineering at the University of Pretoria, believes managing student expectations is a more pressing challenge.
“Many students choose a mining engineering degree for the wrong reasons. You find that they do not have an appetite for the profession and don’t understand the industry and its challenges,” he says.
A study conducted by Brunswick, an advisory firm specialising in critical issues and corporate relations, found that the mining industry appeared to have neglected to communicate in a way that resonated with students.
The study explored the positive and negative associations with the industry and the factors that made it attractive or unattractive to potential candidates.
“The aim of the research was to understand how students in the UK and South Africa viewed the mining industry, both regarding the overall perceptions and also its ‘employer brand’,” said Timothy Schultz, director at Brunswick.
The overall perceptions of the mining sector differed somewhat among students in the UK and South Africa. In the UK, most students were neutral, primarily due to a lack of knowledge of the industry.
In an interview with Mining Weekly, Chamber of Mines chief executive Roger Baxter says the South African mining industry has a retention rate of 15% with most graduates eventually moving into other fields such as consulting and banking.
For students in both the UK and South Africa, a significant barrier to working in the mining industry was a lack of familiarity with the opportunities available. There was agreement on the lack of visibility of mining-related companies at universities (for example at career fairs), with those people studying mining-related courses saying they did not feel well-informed.
This resulted in students being left with the default view that jobs in the mining industry equated to working in a mine; it was difficult for them to visualise the corporate and professional roles that go beyond this.
“We need to get young people to understand that it is a dynamic and innovative industry, which offers a broad range of opportunities, ranging from the engineering professions all the way through to medical professionals, lawyers, accountants and strategists,” said Sandra du Toit, head of Africa corporate finance: mining and metals, at Standard Bank.
A lawyer by profession, Du Toit recalled her introduction to the mining industry where she was recruited into a boutique law firm that focused on the mining sector.
“As a new lawyer, I was involved in everything from labour matters for mining companies to complex litigation involving old royalty agreements. As I matured into mergers and acquisitions, as a young corporate lawyer, that focus on the mining industry was sustained,” she says. Du Toit had the opportunity to do everything from drafting mining contracts and tolling agreements to doing due diligence investigations into mining companies and preparing merger notifications on mining transactions for the competition authorities.
In South Africa, students held stronger (more negative) views of the sector, driven by issues relating to national interest and the perceived exploitation of the country by foreign mining companies.
Despite this, in both markets, students were able to identify a range of positive associations with mining. These included the creation of jobs, technological innovation and a sense that progress had been made regarding environmental and social responsibility.
“It creates jobs. If you have a mine in one area, it’ll boost the local economy (and) that will create jobs (and) better health care. I think it can have a good social impact,” said a student from the UK.
Although mechanisation, digitisation and big data is the type of technology that is revolutionising mining, students don’t associate mining with innovation.
“I believe we are in an exciting place when it comes to innovation, taking into consideration how it’s being applied in all aspects of the mining industry. It’s a good time for young people to become involved, but more needs to be done by mining companies to promote such opportunities,” said Claire McMaster, group human resources manager at MSA group.
McMaster, past chairperson of Women in Mining South Africa (Wimsa) and currently Wimsa patron, says Wimsa works with Sci-Bono (southern Africa’s largest science centre) through career fairs.
“We talk to students about the nature of the mining industry, the different roles as well as their employment prospects.
By the end of the day, they walk away excited knowing that they have options at their disposal,” she says.
Norman Mbazima, deputy chair of Anglo American South Africa, urges mining students to pursue a career in the mining sector, saying the demand for young, skilled mining professionals is on the rise.
“When metal prices are low, change is needed. You can’t change everything, but ingenuity is required for this industry and that’s where young minds are needed,” he said.