At the minesite with Sandy Spenceley

The cyclical nature of precious metals mining has always been a challenge for the mining industry. As the value of metals rises, the appetite for mining causes hiring booms, with commensurate busts when the economy is less favorable. Experienced miners are retiring every year, but during downtimes there’s little incentive to start at mining engineering schools because there is so little demand for the newly qualified graduates. Which means when times are good, there’s not enough people.  

If you can’t find people locally, you have to bring them to the project

Companies have always had to move miners around the world to keep projects well-staffed. Spenceley has worked all over the world (his two children were born in India).  Moving from country to country and adapting to different cultures has not been an issue for him.

“Never been a problem,” he says, “it fascinates me”. Spenceley has picked up seven languages during his career – not to any high degree of fluency he emphasizes, just “enough to have a conversation with any of the men. You get along with people a lot better if you are trying to absorb their culture and adapt to it”.

But Spenceley’s cultural interests are not shared by everyone.  Companies have had to pay high rates to get the right people to the right place.  And the cyclical nature of precious metal mining means that it can be hard to forecast competitive rates.

“It’s a real challenge for HR for budgeting”, Spenceley explains, “because we never know how much we are going to have to pay people to be attracted to mining. If you make a 20% or 30% miscalculation, that’s a big hole in your finances”. 

The impact of the working environment

Companies with mining operations in the developing world are fast to adapt the latest technologies. In places where there is no mining history to speak of, companies bring in fleets of the latest, most modern, mining equipment.

“I prefer the Greenfield mining opportunities,” Spenceley says, “you get to pick the equipment and be part of the design phase.” This can be highly motivating. “We are encouraged to bring the best of our practices with us in terms of safety, process, technology, everything. Then once it gets rolled out in those countries, it’s actually really cool”. 

Personal technology requirements

Starting up operations in remote areas is not without challenges. There may be little established infrastructure and additional investment may be required. “To get people to these outlying places you must do specific things. You have to have a speedy internet service” Spenceley comments, “you can have the best food, but if you can’t connect that miner to his family on a daily basis, you don’t have a project.” For one remote site, Spenceley ran WiFi throughout the camp and set up a secure bandwidth. It’s essential to make video communication tools like Skype or FaceTime accessible so that families can maintain contact.

Opportunities closer to home

There are mining operations that offer more time at home, with family and friends.

“The current generation put more value on their personal time and family time” says Spenceley. “Staying closer to home preserves the balance of home and work, but it might change the nature of the working environment. Mining operations that are 70, 50, even 30 years old, will have older equipment and infrastructure, with a focus on safe operation and maintenance rather than on design and build. But with long-term stability, and the possibility of a regular family life, this is ideal for some.”

As for the future of the mining industry? Spenceley wouldn’t worry if his children wanted to follow in his footsteps. “I wouldn’t force it on them, or encourage it over any other (career), but it’s been really good to me.”


About Sandy Spenceley, Brunel Mining Contractor

Sandy Spenceley has worked in mining operations for more than 30 years. He has lived and worked all over the world, including India, Honduras, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Indonesia and Fiji. We had the opportunity to explore the ways the industry has tried to attract talent; Spenceley considered some of the changes companies have had to make.