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As a woman in the upper ranks of a mining company, Tamara Brown is rare enough. The vice-president of investor relations at Primero Mining, a Canadian gold miner, hopes to become a still scarcer commodity, however: holder of an Executive MBA especially designed for the mining industry.

Mining is an age-old business but has become one of the fastest-growing industries this century as China’s hunger for resources started a “supercycle” of strong growth and constrained demand.

Yet the talent pool has not expanded as quickly. A decade and a half later, a generation of senior mining executives is approaching retirement, while some poorly executed megaprojects and billions of dollars of wasted investments suggest a deficiency of management skills across much of the sector.

In an attempt to address this issue, Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia is offering an executive MBA — an MBA for working managers — in strategic mining management. Ms Brown is hoping to be among 30 students starting the 21-month programme in September.

“There is going to be a large group of people retiring soon and you want to be well prepared,” says Ms Brown. “You want to make sure you have everything in your kit.”

Canada’s connection to mining is strong, with more than 1,600 listed mining companies. But Brian Bemmels, a professor and senior associate dean for academic programmes at Sauder, says the industry “saw a vacuum coming” in terms of the lack of people ready to move into senior positions.

Sauder’s EMBA will run in collaboration with UBC’s 100-year-old Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering and has support from companies in Vancouver including Goldcorp, the world’s largest gold miner by market capitalisation. Rohan Hazelton, Goldcorp’s vice-president of strategy, is on the programme’s advisory council.

“There is going to be significant retirements and there is not a talent pool deep enough to take their place,” Mr Hazelton says, pointing to Goldcorp’s own underground mines in Canada, where the average age of the workforce is between 48 and 50.

“This programme will be a piece of the puzzle in finding new leaders for the mining industry,” he says.

As for the quality of management in the sector, he admits: “We can do a far better job of managing our companies and our industry.”

Scott Dunbar, a professor and head of the Keevil institute who will be the academic lead on the EMBA, says too many senior mining managers are engineers “who do not have any financial training or strategy concepts” — or alternatively, accountants with scant knowledge of mining’s practical side.

Meanwhile the costs of mistakes have grown ever higher, with mining projects that can “drop $10bn in the blink of an eye”, as Prof Dunbar puts it.

“The numbers of people involved are huge and the risks are enormous,” he says. “A big component of this programme is about risk.”

Another significant element of the programme will be called “global citizenship”, says Prof Bemmels. This reflects the fact that one of the biggest stumbling blocks in mining is not a lack of technical knowledge but a failure to get support from local communities and governments — what miners know as having a “social licence to operate”.

“The industry globally has had a pretty bad reputation for this kind of stuff and is saying: ‘We want to do better.’ They were adamant this had to be a key part of the programme,” he says.

Most of Sauder’s 21-month course will be done through distance learning, with many participants likely to be working at remote mine sites. Four residential elements are planned in London, Santiago and Vancouver.

Perhaps ironically, Sauder is launching the EMBA at a time when the mining sector is in a fresh downturn. Prices of many commodities have fallen sharply over the past two years. But given that the MBA market in any case tends to be counter-cyclical, Prof Bemmels says this is not a concern.

“When we started [planning] this three years ago gold was at $1,800,” he says, 50 per cent higher than today’s price per ounce. “This is for the long term. We are not too worried about that.”

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