Skills Development at
Diavik Diamond Mines Inc.
Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. (DDMI) is based in Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories. It operates the remote Diavik Diamond Mine (Diavik) approximately 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife and employs approximately 700 workers. Except for a short period when a winter road exists, the mine is only accessible by air. Diavik operates the Workplace Learning Centre at the mine – an on-site facility designed to address the company’s training needs and help develop workplace essential skills in its workforce. (See “Note to Readers” below for a description of the workplace Essential Skills framework). CPRN Work Network Researcher Richard Brisbois spoke with Leah Von Hagen, Manager of Workforce Development at DDMI about the Workplace Learning Centre and the human resources challenges of running a diamond mine in such a demanding and unusual environment.
RB: What have been some of the greatest human resource challenges in getting the Diavik mine up and running?
LVH: We have a commitment that we will hire Northerners and Aboriginals and we will work to develop our people. With a small population of about 43,000 people in the Northwest Territories, and other industry already in the area drawing on that small population for their workforce, our challenge has been finding people with the necessary skills to work for us. Some Aboriginal employees have never worked in a wage economy before and their job at Diavik may be the first full time job they have ever held. In some cases, the population of the mine site is larger than many of the communities employees are from. Moreover, English is a second language to many workers. This is quite a shift for people and helping them get through this change is a challenge.
Most of our employees work on a 2 by 2 shift rotation - meaning 2 weeks on site and 2 weeks off site. This split schedule means that there are only certain windows to work with employees on their development before they leave the mine site and return home. This can sometimes pose a challenge in developing training programs.
RB: Can you tell me about Diavik’s Workplace Learning Centre (WLC)?
LVH: The WLC started during our construction phase and now has been in operation for over two years. It’s gone from being staffed by one person working on a 4 and 3 rotation (which is 4 days in and 3 days out) – to being staffed by two full-time adult educators working a 2 week cross shift. This means one adult educator is on-site for 2 weeks at a time and then switches with his/her colleague and goes off-site for two weeks. This rotation ensures that an adult educator is always at the mine site.
RB: Who’s eligible to participate in the WLC? What kinds of programs are offered?
LVH: All employees are eligible as well as our contractors, who fill about half our total workforce. Contractors include positions such as heavy equipment operators and they are welcome to benefit from everything that is at the Diavik mine site, including the WLC.
Workplace essential skills are the primary focus, ensuring that people have the reading, writing, and numeracy skills they need to do the job safely and effectively. Upgrading is also a big part of it. Workers can upgrade math, science, and computer skills. For some employees, it’s their first time ever working with a computer, so they learn the basics of computer use as well. Workers can also write a high school equivalency exam, trade apprenticeship exams, and college/university exams on site.
RB: When are programs offered at the WLC? Are they offered during a worker’s shift, or after hours?
LVH: Both. They may be offered when somebody comes on or off shift. In some situations, workers are given work release time, where they can spend anywhere from a few to several hours a day at the WLC during their work time. Their supervisor is supportive of them attending, so they are able to do this. We also have people who go in the evening. However, the WLC does not stay open 24 hours a day.
RB: Is there a formal company policy for release time to attend the WLC?
LVH: There’s no formal policy. Usually, people are identified either by our trainers when they go through a training plan, or by their superintendent or supervisor observing that there may be skill gaps. They’ll work with the training department and determine what’s the best way for this person to upgrade their skills and how much time can they give. There’s nothing formal that says all employees are entitled to release time. It’s really on a case by case basis, and it’s based on needs of the employee and the needs of their workgroup
RB: I understand there had been some refocusing at the WLC. Can you tell me about this?
LVH: One of the key challenges in running the WLC is maintaining credibility and ensuring the centre is seen as adding business value to the organization. As such, the centre has deliberately refocused itself more clearly from a community centre to a training centre. This ensures that programs focus on essential workplace skills and not community or recreational programming. The WLC and the adult educators focus primarily on essential skills upgrading. This was a very deliberate decision.
RB: What has been the reaction of employees and managers to the WLC?
LVH: Very positive. Managers were initially concerned because they wanted to make sure that the training employees were getting was specific to their work and not focused on recreational activities. So once we proved to them that we had made the shift to be completely business-focused, there has been just tremendous support for the adult educators and for the program. The WLC is busy all the time and is certainly a popular spot, and is starting to become a place that employees think about going if they need help with skills upgrading. Supervisors are also now including the WLC and the adult educators in development plans for their employees.
RB: What other special considerations have you made in setting up the WLC?
LVH: As I said earlier, it is important to recognize that, for some of our employees, the mine site is bigger than the communities that they come from. It can be very overwhelming to get off a plane and be at a very industrial mine site which is operating at quite a fast pace compared to a small community that you’ve come from. This is always something we have to keep in mind. We have deliberately tried to make the WLC not look like a traditional school or a classroom. It does have more traditional computer stations, but it does not have a classroom with desks in a row. The adult educators have worked very hard at being approachable and at being involved in other activities outside the WLC and are not just seen in that room and in that context. They will often go out and work with supervisors and a crew, getting to know what the employees do on a daily basis and get a better understanding of the different areas of the mine. So, it isn’t always the employees who have to go to them, they are also going to the employees.
RB: What are the biggest skills gaps you are seeing in your employees at the WLC? How are these gaps identified?
LVH: Low levels of workplace essential skills – the skills you need to do your job – are our biggest concern. The low levels of literacy, numeracy, and document use among the workforce, particularly for those in entry level jobs, are the key focus of our skills upgrading initiatives at the WLC. Safety at the mine site is the priority and, therefore, increasing the skills levels in these three areas is seen as critical in promoting workplace safety. To address this, Diavik partnered with Bow Valley College in Calgary, Alberta in developing customized essential skills profiles and assessment tests – called the Test of Workplace Essential Skills or TOWES - in four entry level positions that are seen as crucial to operations: heavy equipment operator; warehouse technician; site services surface worker; and process plant operator. These tools allow us to determine the gap between where our entry level workforce needs to be in terms of their skill levels and where they currently are. The adult educators then develop custom training programs for employees in these four positions that address the areas that they most need help in.
RB: I understand that the customized assessment tests or TOWES tests are deliberately not used as a screening tool, is this correct?
LVH: Yes, it is important to note that Diavik does not use the TOWES tests to pre-screen potential employees. We have a commitment that we will work with our northern workforce. If you have the right attitude, you show interest, and are willing to work hard, then we will work very hard with you so that you can progress. So, we make sure that people understand the TOWES tests are strictly used as an assessment tool for the four entry level positions only after you have a job offer. The test results are then used to help develop a customized training program for employees to meet the needs of the job. It was important to let people know that the essential skills profiles would not be used as a barrier to employment but rather as a development tool.
RB: What steps did you take in developing the WLC?
LVH: We proceeded in very small steps, and we didn’t rush things. Setup involved a lot of one-on-one meetings with managers and supervisors giving them a good understanding about workplace essential skills, the TOWES tests, and how this would help our workforce. We also partnered with our local college, Aurora College, giving them the opportunity to understand our move to workplace essential skills versus adult basic education. Support of senior management has also been key to the success of the WLC. This support has translated into release time for employees to participate in the programs at the WLC.
RB: Are there any obstacles to greater use of your skills upgrading initiatives at Diavik?
LVH: I think time is the biggest obstacle. People are very busy, but as long as we continue to add value and make a difference in people’s ability to do their work well and safely, then this obstacle will be minimal. I also think that if employees were able to continue their learning when they go out on their 2 weeks off, they would be able to progress a lot more quickly. One of the adult educators uses a diet as an analogy for this. You can’t diet for two weeks, then eat whatever you want and not exercise for two weeks, and then go back on your diet for two weeks. The diet just won’t work that way. I think learning is much like this, it’s hard to be successful if you keep turning off the learning for the two weeks you are not on site.
RB: That’s a great analogy. Is there anything being done to address this challenge?
LVH: Our adult educators at the mine site are very connected with the adult educators in each of the local communities the employees are from. Employees are encouraged to continue their learning in their home community during their two weeks off. It doesn’t always happen because many employees have family and personal commitments. They have already been away from home for two weeks and therefore it is hard to structure learning time when they are off. The continuity of learning is challenge.
RB: How have you assessed the effectiveness of the WLC so far?
LVH: The WLC and the essential skills profiles and TOWES tests are still relatively new, so we don’t yet have any concrete measure of our success. However, we have had a great deal of very positive feedback from the adult educators, managers, and employees who have participated in WLC programs. We have seen increases in employee self-esteem and confidence in doing their jobs. Employees are more willing to speak out in social settings. So, it’s all anecdotal, but the feedback has certainly been very positive.
RB: Is there a concern about employee poaching by other employers in the area?
LVH: It’s not really a concern that we’re spending a lot of money on skills development that can simply walk out the door. We are aware that there is going to be competition for a very small workforce but we also strive to be Canada’s premier diamond mine. We see more rewards in working together with competing employers than being completely closed to each other as we all face the same need to develop the skills of our respective workforces. For example, our adult educators have regular conversations with adult educators at other local diamond mines and we’ve collaborated on a couple of training initiatives together. Diavik will strive to be an employer of choice to continue to attract new employees and retain current employees. This is how we will compete for employees.
RB: Finally, what advice would you give another organization that is thinking of implementing its own skills upgrading initiatives?
LVH: Know what skills you require, be really clear about that, and know what the gaps are. Consider essential skills profiles, as they help you focus on what are really necessary, because you can really go down a couple of different avenues and get very distracted. Whereas essential skills profiles help you say, okay, what is it the person needs to know and do to be successful at their job, and most importantly, to be safe while they’re doing it. I would say, have a really good plan, take small steps, and get buy-in early and at the highest levels. If you don’t have that support it’s really, really difficult to go forward.
RB: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about these issues.
The Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. website – www.diavik.ca
Note to Readers
The workplace essential skills noted in the Diavik interview refer to the Essential Skills framework developed by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC).
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) has identified a set of nine skills – termed Essential Skills - that are used in most (if not all) occupations and are seen as necessary to be successful in these occupations. The nine Essential Skills identified by HRSDC include: reading text; document use; writing; numeracy; oral communication; thinking skills (problem solving, decision making, critical thinking, and finding information); working with others; computer use; and continuous learning.
The Federal Government’s Essential Skills Research Project (ESRP), initiated in 1994, aimed to identify the measurable, transferable and teachable skills present in virtually all Canadian occupations listed in the National Occupational Classification (NOC), the authoritative taxonomy of occupations in Canada. The NOC organizes the Canadian world of work into 520 occupational groups according to skill type and skill levels and is the framework for occupational data collection in Canada.
The ESRP has directly generated occupation-specific essential skills profiles that are used by industry and educational partners across Canada to set training standards appropriate to particular occupations. According to the ESRP website, there are some 190 occupational profiles currently available - 150 of these profiles refer to occupations that can be entered with a high school diploma or less. There are also some 40 profiles that describe occupations requiring study beyond high school. Additional profiles will be added as they become available.
The methodology developed to profile Canadian occupations has sometimes been tailored by others for use in particular sectors or workplaces – as is the case in the development of customized essential skills profiles for the four entry level positions at Diavik.