The Australian

by Sarah-Jane Tasker

Concerns that technological advancements in mining will lead to fewer jobs have been dismissed by a new Rio Tinto-commissioned report, which argues they will have the opposite effect and ensure Australia's booming industry remains globally competitive.

The independent report, by consultancy firm BAEconomics, concludes that concerns about a reduction in employment in the mining industry as a result of automated mine sites are misplaced.

"While some specific roles are likely to disappear over time, employment overall would be expected to grow faster while Australia maintains its competitive position," said the authors, Brian Fisher and Sabine Schnittger.

"Relocating challenging new jobs to more desirable locations will furthermore broaden employment opportunities and attract more talent in addition to easing overall labour constraints in the Australian economy."

Rio is leading the way in Australia, with its Mine of the Future program, which sees driverless trucks at iron ore sites in Western Australia's Pilbara region operated from a centre in Perth.

John McGagh, head of innovation at Rio, said the report highlighted the increasingly complex challenges being faced by the mining industry.

"Our industry is facing maturing ore bodies, fewer tier-one deposits, increasingly complex geographies and labour shortages, and the report details how innovation in autonomous technologies can play an important role in addressing these challenges," he said.

The report outlines that Australia's mining sector is on the cusp of a step-change, with technological advancements to transform the way the industry operates.

The technology is mostly being developed in Australia, becoming the world leader in that field. It is creating spin-off opportunities and has seen the emergence of a new sector -- mining technology services and equipment (MTSE).

A recent report by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney found that the significance of this emerging sector had been underestimated.

The report highlighted that the total exports of MTSE products and services significantly exceeded that of the wine industry and, by some estimates, the motor vehicle industry.

The MTSE sector reportedly generated about $27.5 billion in annual sales in 2008-09 and employed 82,725 people. In comparison, the struggling motor industry is expected to record about $11.9bn in revenues this year.

The BAEconomics report, due to be released today, argues the advancement of technology needs to be supported.

"In order to succeed in the global marketplace, Australian mining businesses must therefore innovate and change their operations to at least match the costs of their international competitors.

"Unless Australian producers remain competitive, future production is likely to shift to those countries that are today catching up rapidly."