Age: 29 • Long Term Planning Engineer • Swakop Uranium, Namibia
“I always think that my job is equivalent to that of a conductor of an orchestra.”
This young leader started from humble beginnings in a rural high school and because of his academic track record he scored himself a bursary through Rio Tinto’s Rossing Uranium Mine, there his journey began. His humble beginnings did not deter him from his ambitious goals; he kept on working hard through his studies ultimately graduating top of his class in varsity. Today, Tomas K Aipanda is in charge of evaluating the best mining sequences for one of Africa’s biggest uranium mine. Read our interview with this promising young leader below.
1. Where did you obtain your mining engineering qualification and what challenges did you encounter at university level?
I obtained my BEng (Mining) in 2010 from the University of Pretoria in record time and with top honours. During my first years in Pretoria I was specifically challenged with adapting to the new environment. I had then only finished my high school from a rural school in northern Namibia. This was a step change for me and I had to adjust quickly. I had to adjust to a new way of studying; and a completely new culture in a completely different country.
The initial periods were also challenging academically as the curriculums were not entirely on par with that of Namibia. I had to put in the hours to make up for this difference. I remember on one occasion in a chemistry class of 700 students I struggled with a particular concept but I couldn’t bring myself to ask the lecturer in front of the whole class. I felt it was something I ought to know. I only found out after class that it was almost the whole class that didn’t understand the concept. Things gradually improved towards the latter years of the studies.
I was very fortunate in that I had sponsorship from Rossing Uranium Mine that covered tuition, accommodation and food. This made my problems smaller and more manageable, especially when I compare what other students had to go through.
2. How did you manage to fast track your career growth to this point in a short period of time?
Much of what I have achieved has been as a result of hard work and a very good support from my supervisors. I don’t consider myself the best, but I have been able to pull through as a result of my persistence and good support structure. Rossing gave me a very good foundation during my graduate development program. I was able to quickly move into a senior role just after completion of this program. I learned a lot during this period especially in managing a work force. The support from my supervisor allowed me to execute my role effortlessly.
When I came to Swakop Uranium, I was again given the opportunity to freely apply myself in the wide scope of mine planning. This together with ample training allowed me to grasp the concepts that are key to the current role.
3. Reflecting back to your high school years, at what point did you realise that you wanted to pursue mining engineering as a career?
Here I will admit that perhaps it was not a straightforward decision. Even with some research into the different fields of study choosing a career was still difficult. More so because my academic record allowed me to pursue any fields of studies available. The decision was made easy when I was offered a bursary to study mining engineering. I had also considered other fields such as medicine & civil engineering.
In hindsight, I am glad that I chose mining engineering as it is a unique industry to work in that is financially rewarding and always full of excitement owing to the nature of the work.
4. What is the most important thing to consider when choosing a career?
I think it is very important that you understand your personality as it determines how you will fit into the different work environments. It’s worthwhile to take personality tests and interrogate them with those that know you best in an attempt to understand the person that is you.
Once you have understood yourself, you then need to research on the different fields that interest you and match them up with your personality and other considerations such as work hours flexibility, work location, work pay rate and work availability.
It is also important to have an open mind on different career options (at least two). This will help you ensure that you do not end up studying something that you have not researched and prepared yourself for. This will also help you have a fall back plan if things don’t work out with option A.
5. How important is having a mentor as a young person develops their career?
It is highly recommended that you have a mentor as you develop your career. This ensures that your progress is fast tracked as you avoid a lot of delays and setbacks from the guidance that you receive.
A mentor always challenges you to improve yourself continuously. The danger is getting too relaxed and accepting a mediocre career or position simply because there is no one giving you valuable personal advice to help you improve.
6. What is your opinion on the relevancy of mining engineers in the mining industry in the next 10 – 15 years?
New technology either helps make mining cheaper and sustainable or helps identify new commodities to mine to serve as raw material for the new technology. This gives me hope that the industry will be relevant in the next 10 years. Within the Namibian context, commodity prices have not been performing and it has caused a significant slump in the industry. Improvements in commodity prices, particularly the uranium industry will see a lot mines opening up again and providing plenty of the much needed jobs.
7. What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
The day to day interactions are multi-disciplinary and it is ever changing so it keeps you on your toes. The sheer size of the operation makes one appreciate the attention to detail.
I always think that my job is equivalent to that of a conductor of an orchestra. It is my role to ensure that every instrument (mining resources such as trucks & shovels) does the right amount of work (optimised) to be in tune with the others (to be productive) and together make wonderful music (robust production schedule).
When you see your plans being executed to the latter and you see the end results and it is exactly as you had imagined, it is satisfying beyond measure.
8. How do you remain focused and hungry for growth despite your level of success?
The focus is driven by the love for the job whilst the hunger is driven by personal aspirations of exceling in my role and being one of the best in the industry. I would like to see myself take it a step further and move into a more corporate role that involves strategic business development and not only restricted to mining operations. This will hopefully allow me to serve in both mining and any other industrial roles.