This article is part of our special report The global race for raw materials.
Trade unions expressed concerns on Tuesday (20 November) about a shortage of skilled workers in the extraction industry, which they say is becoming a problem for Europe at a time of rising global demand for raw materials.
“Young people are not interested in working in the raw materials industry.”
This is the stark reality observed by Peter Scherrer, deputy secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
The union leader was speaking at a dinner debate hosted by the European Mineral Resources Confederation (EUMICON), which discussed the global race for raw materials under the title “Building a New World, Made in Europe”.
According to Scherrer, working conditions in the extractive industry should be improved in order to make the sector more attractive to young people.
The figures in terms of education are depressing. Mineral processing graduates in Europe are almost negligible, representing around 1% of the total on a global level, said Christian Egenhofer, head of the energy and climate programme at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a think tank.
And the situation is unlikely to improve in the short term, Egenhofer said, pointing to the decline of educational programmes related to the extractive industry in most European countries.
The European Commission is aware of the issue, he told EURACTIV. However, there is little it can do since education is not an EU competence.
The shortage of European graduates raises concerns among industry representatives. Skilled workers are badly needed in order to meet rising demand for raw materials fuelled by a growing world population, said Jill Duggan, director at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) in the UK.
“There are big challenges the global community is currently facing: the growing population, the digitalisation of the economy and global warming,” said Duggan, who is also director of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group (CLG).
“Perhaps the biggest of these is population, a fact that is rarely acknowledged,” she said, quoting United Nations figures showing that the global population is heading towards 9.7 billion in 2050 from a mere 3 billion in 1960.
Demand for raw materials grows in direct relation with the rise of the middle-class in developing countries who adopt Western-style consumption patterns, Duggan explained. But that also comes with opportunities, as the digital economy allows developing nations to leapfrog the stage of high fossil fuel consumption, she added.
Connecting education, research and industry in the value chain
Connecting trade unions, NGOs and academics with the industry is a pre-condition to improve skills and education and therefore meet the global demand for raw materials, said Roman Stiftner, Secretary-General of EUMICON.
At schools and university there is often a lack of understanding of the raw materials value chain, he pointed out.
“The new development in the industry poses huge challenges to traditional education,” he observed, questioning the ability of the higher education system to transfer the sets of skills and knowledge that the industry needs.
“A simple example is the composition of a modern smartphone. Investigating this and identifying the non-ferrous elements a smartphone contains is a highly informative activity,” he said, calling for forging alliances in education, research and development as well as mixing educational methods.
“Innovation in raw materials usage is key for a successful industry and innovative climate solutions,” he stressed, saying the message needs to reach “all workers, at factory and university level.”
In that respect, Stiftner welcomed EU plans to increase research funding.
“There will be a significant amount of money dedicated to research made available and we have to ensure that mid-size companies from the raw materials sector also have access to the funding,” he said.
As it is, the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy committee on Wednesday (21 November) set out their scope and priorities for funding important areas aimed at stimulating future growth such as research, defence, space and digital technologies.
MEPs also welcomed the Commission’s proposal to create the first ever Digital Europe programme, and will invest €8.2 billion under the EU’s next long-term budget for 2021-2027. The funding is crucial to achieve the Digital Single Market strategy and to increase the EU’s international competitiveness, the European Parliament said in a statement.
Peter Scherrer agreed that research and development was key to the industry’s future growth, but that should also been done in cooperation with companies.
He said trade unions have built cooperation with business organisations like BusinessEurope in order to push for apprenticeships, a move he sees as essential to bridge the gap between the industry and the education sector.
“Through apprenticeships, students learn how the industry works and they can combine that experience with their education,” he said.
“Raw materials are difficult to get. When you want people to innovate, you need skilled workers in order to deliver,” he said, referring to discussions in Europe over battery manufacturing.
Human resources remain a key asset for EU mining companies, stressed Roman Stiftner. As raw materials prove more essential than ever for the global economy, education is the key to keep Europe at the forefront of global innovation, he concluded.