Rio Tinto has warned of a large-scale shortfall of data scientists in Australia that could force the miner to build its capabilities offshore.
CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques used CEDA’s Copland Lecture in Melbourne last night to press the miner’s positions on a wide range of technology topics currently impacting its operations.
The speech was noteworthy as perhaps the company’s most sizable incursion into technology since it launched its Mine of the Future program back in 2008.
“Over a decade - given our technology leadership - we have been talking to our employees about how technology changes roles, creates new opportunities and also requires a reset,” Jacques said.
“The vision I see is the mining sector in all its forms will become an even more high wage and tech-savvy model industry.
“But we also need to recognise we may not have all the capabilities we require for the future here in Australia right now.”
The “reset” - caused largely by Rio Tinto automating large parts of its operations - has been firmly back on the agenda in recent weeks, after it emerged up to 200 roles would go from Pilbara mines as robot truck use is expanded.
But Jacques presented a far more bullish outlook on employment, one in which he claimed Rio Tinto would still need the same amount of engineers, but from IT and telecommunications disciplines instead of mining and geology.
“When I recruit 100 engineers today, around two-thirds of them are mining-type engineers and around one-third would be data scientists, telco, operational research and so on,” he said.
“I’ll make a forecast that ten years down the road I will still need 100 engineers, but the ratio will be totally different: one-third mining engineers as we know them, and two-thirds would be telecom, data scientists and so on.
“The challenge we are facing - and when I say we it’s not only Rio Tinto - today in Australia is that we do not have enough data scientists [to fill future roles].”
Jacques said Rio Tinto was working with federal and state governments as well as universities and industry to try to address the shortfall.
But he warned if those efforts did not show signs of progress, and he was unable to bring in data science skills from elsewhere due to changes in 457s and skilled migration, the company may simply have to refocus its data science efforts elsewhere.
“Today if I want to find data scientists, the easy option for me is Singapore - I can tell you the government of Singapore is spending a lot of money to train the next generation of data scientists - or countries like India or in Eastern Europe,” Jacques said.
“The challenge and opportunity is either we find a way to train people in Australia or to bring those people to Australia.
“I’m not going to make a big political statement about 457s, but the reality is if we cannot bring those people fast enough then I’ve got no other options but to find them elsewhere.
“That’s not where we want to be and it’s why lots of conversations are taking place at the federal and state level with universities and the industry to see how we can unlock the situation. It’s not easy.”
Jacques said there was a need for a “multi-year roadmap on how we train the people for the next 5-10-15 years” in the data science disciplines.
Jacques also spent a considerable part of his speech imploring business leaders to participate in more meaningful exchanges on social media, both public and internally-facing.
“I’m a big fan of social media,” he said.
“It connects people like never before but it also creates new challenges for businesses and governments in particular who are used to established systems and controls.
“We need to get much better at using these networks.
“We need to loosen up, talk straight and direct, be less focused on always saying the correct thing, and recognise the world is changing rapidly, which means we need to adapt our style to stay relevant and current.”
Jacques is leading by example with a strong push internally at Rio Tinto to drive uptake of the Yammer internal social networking tool made by Microsoft.
But he was unperturbed by those earlier experiences, in part because he sees Yammer as breaking down barriers between executives and everyone else at the company.
The company’s Yammer instance allows employees to ask questions to Jacques and the executive team directly. “If I dont have the answer I say so,” Jacques said.
“As chief executive of Rio my goal is to connect to all of our employees, to encourage collaboration and empower decision making across the business. Social media is key to this plan.
“Today we have over 50 percent of our permanent employees around the globe [on Yammer]. It has doubled in terms of the numbers of users and engagement over the last year and it is a great way to share ideas and data.
“But the organisation has to have an open culture for it to be able to work. We’re working on that.”
Jacques also praised an internal team he called “decoders” whose job it was to respond to people talking about Rio Tinto out on public-facing social media.
“As a business leader it is important to know that some of what we see and hear on social channels we may not like,” he said.
“Having people that can interpret, filter and respond to multiple competing perspectives and insights is more important than ever before.”