Skip to main content
xYOU DESERVE INDEPENDENT, CRITICAL MEDIA. We want readers like you. Support independent critical media.

Mining Brain Drain as Workers Seek Greener Pastures

Stuart Braun |
The mining industry is struggling to find staff as skilled workers prioritize jobs in sustainability-focused sectors such as clean energy.

As mining and fossil fuel companies worldwide shed jobs and struggle to attract skilled personnel, the opposite is happening in the clean energy sector.

Renewable energy firms are expected to generate around 10.3 million new jobs by 2030, according to a study by the World Economic Forum, a Switzerland-based business lobbying group. At the same time, around 2.7 million jobs will be lost in fossil fuel sectors.

The clean energy industry is attracting a broad base of skilled talent to work on electrical efficiency, power generation and electric vehicles, for example. 

Meanwhile, to keep pace and continue to fill their talent pipelines, traditional fossil fuel companies will need to be more creative in which sectors they recruit from, said Ryan Carroll, regional director in Australia and New Zealand for global energy industry recruiting firm, Airswift. 

"The renewable energy sector is hiring five times more people from other sectors than traditional oil and gas sectors," he said.

One report by the World Resources Institute, an environment think tank in Washington DC, found that each $1 million (€920,000) invested in green sectors creates much more employment than the same amount invested in "unsustainable" industries, like mining. Investment in ecosystem restoration creates 3.7 times as many jobs as oil and gas production, for example. 

The great renewables job transition  

The 2022 Global Energy Talent Index (GETI) report released by Airswift, which surveyed 10,000 energy professionals globally, shows that climate and environment are factors for a majority of workers when deciding whether to either join or leave an energy company. 

These employees cite environmental, social and governance concerns as a key reason to change jobs, Ryan Carroll said. Accordingly, 9% of workers surveyed for the report said they would switch from other sectors to an extractive industry like mining.

As renewable energy companies recruit from an ever-widening pool of scientists, engineers and experts, they are also offering more diverse work environments.

"The net result of that is you have a real diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity," said Carroll. This kind of "diversity of mind" is less prevalent in traditional oil and gas or mining companies, he added.

The recruitment expert said that a fast-closing salary gap between the fossil fuel or mining industry and green sector jobs is also making a transition to renewables attractive to employees.

This is a function of booming investment in clean energy, and the renewable industry's need to constantly seek out cutting-edge technology.

"The sector stands for change, for innovation," said Carroll. "It offers the dream that you can actually have an impact on something."

Under the European Green Deal, policies to reach net-zero emissions and to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) are expected to create up to 2 million green jobs in the EU by 2050.

In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act passed in July 2022 will, according to the think tank Climate Power, "create millions of good paying clean energy jobs."

So too in Australia, the more pro-climate government elected in May has been a green light for a massive uptick in renewables investment that is enhancing long-term prospects for workers, said Carroll.

"When you were changing careers into renewables two or three years ago, you were essentially taking a punt," he said, noting that upcoming clean energy companies had limited funds. "Now you've got pipelines of projects that give engineers in particular stability of work and career development."

Graduates flee resources sector

With the energy landscape rapidly changing, students also appear reticent to seek a career in traditional extractive industries. Mining engineering enrollments dropped by as much as 50% across Canada and parts of Europe in the last five to seven years, for instance. 

In Australia — the world's first and second biggest exporter of iron ore and coal — mining sector jobs are by far the highest paid in the nation yet enrollments in relevant degrees are "dwindling," said Australia's federal resources minister, Madeleine King.

A man digs coal with a pick axeA man digs coal with a pick axe

Workers in extractive industries, like this coal mining worker in Pakistan, will more likely find jobs in wind or solar in the futureImage: Saadeqa Khan/DW

"A big barrier to attracting these workers is the attitude many young Australians hold towards the resources industry," King told industry representatives recently.

Mining skills will be required to access the rare earths needed for a green energy transition, but many perceive the industry negatively. 

"Mining has been embedded in the public consciousness as a dirty, non-innovative, outdated and environmentally harmful industry," write the Polish authors of a 2021 study titled "A New Face of Mining Engineer."

Poland is another country where mining engineering enrollments declined by 50% between 2015 and 2019, according to the study.

But even if this image problem could be addressed, the mining skills shortage is set to deepen as coal is phased out around the world, including in Australia.

By contrast, renewables sector employment is set to boom further after the Australian government committed to powering 82% of the energy grid from clean sources by 2030. 

So great is the demand for labor in the Australian renewables sector that the looming skills shortage could cripple its expansion, according to experts

Can mining go green?

Still, with recruitment in the renewables sector enjoying what Carroll called "a bit of a perfect storm," mining companies are flagging their green credentials to attract recruits.

As Australian Resources Minister King recently noted, mining of strategic materials such as lithium and cobalt is essential to clean energy technologies like solar and batteries.

King wants big mining to push its so-called green mining bona fides and "get more creative" to attract young people.

But criticism of green mining might yet put off climate-conscious employees.

While there is a move to "smart" and sustainable low-impact mining, Meadhbh Bolger of Brussels-headquartered environment NGO Friends of the Earth Europe believes green mining is perpetuating the overconsumption that is driving the climate crisis.

Bolger, the co-author of a 2021 report on the green mining "myth," says that the logic of endless extraction and economic growth needs to be resisted, including among clean energy companies who portray themselves as champions of climate action. 

Yet traditional oil and gas businesses are touting their moves toward clean energy to attract talent.

Global petrochemical company Lummus Technologies is using renewable bio-based feedstocks to create chemicals, polymers and fuels as part of a "circular economy" model, said Lummus CEO, Leon de Bruyn, in Airswift's GETI report.

"Embracing the energy transition is now key to attracting a new generation of talent," he added.

Edited by: Sarah Steffen and Jennifer Collins

Correction, 19 January, 2023: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to lithium and copper as rare earth metals. They are not. This has since been revised. 

Courtesy: DW

Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.

Subscribe Newsclick On Telegram