Securing Australia's future mining workforce

Materials World magazine
1 Apr 2006

In recent months, Australia's largest coal miner and exporter BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) has announced an AUS$50 million, three-year, ‘Skills for Growth' package that incorporates a range of initiatives aimed at securing Australia's future mining workforce. Meanwhile the Queensland Government Department of Education and Arts, in collaboration with the minerals industry and the Queensland Resources Council, has also launched a Minerals and Energy Academy, aimed at encouraging high school pupils to take up careers in the minerals and energy sector through access to a number of related learning and career opportunities. The two similarly-focused ventures, launched within a month of each other, are no coincidence (BMA is in fact an industry sponsor of the new academy in Queensland) - they are part of a wider programme dedicated to improving the skills base of Australia's minerals industry.

According to figures from the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), there has been a decline of roughly 55% in the number of mining engineering graduates educated in Australia from 2000 to 2005 - a trend evident many years prior to the millennium. ‘There is a chronic shortage of skilled people in Australia in mining engineering', says Kevin Tuckwell, Executive Director of the nation's Minerals Tertiary Education Council (MTEC).

Although there has been an upturn in the number of current undergraduate enrolments for the next few years, ‘the industry is still crying out for more', adds Tuckwell. ‘Not all mining engineering graduates end up working in the minerals industry - historically, only about 70%. There are six institutions producing about 100 graduates a year. The industry needs about 160.' Moreover, the time delay between enrolling on a course and joining a company - usually three to four years - means that mining companies will not feel the effect of any increase in graduates in the field immediately.

The student psyche

But why has there been a reduction in the number of young people entering the industry in Australia? The MCA has identified a number of reasons -

  • An ageing population - birth rates have fallen from 2.6 births per woman in 1925 to less than 1.6 by 2005, while life expectancy has increased.
  • Declining scientific literacy - the number of secondary school children taking advanced level science has halved since the 1970s. The pool of students qualified to study mining engineering at university has therefore been reduced.
  • Many young professionals do not want to work in remote areas.
  • Low unemployment equals little real competition for jobs.

The image of the industry is another issue that may be to blame, and the MCA is undertaking student surveys to discover what motivates students, and ‘whether the image of the minerals industry [as] dirty, dark and dangerous is really an impediment', says Tuckwell. ‘Unfortunately, many of our operations aren't near capital cities, beaches, clubs and discos.' While some staff members work on site, others are part of the fly-in-fly-out workforces, where workers fly from their home base to the site for a period of time and then back again. ‘Typical rosters are eight days on, six days off, two weeks on, one week off. Not everyone can hack this.'

In contrast, Australia is known for its rich natural mineral resources and their contribution to the nation's economy. About 35% of Australia's total merchandise exports from 2003 to 2004 came from the minerals industry (MCA figures). Tuckwell says, ‘Survey work shows that society recognises the financial contribution the minerals industry makes to Australia, however, the operations are mostly out of sight. It is not straightforward for them to make the connection between the material things in their lives and the mining industry. We call it "perception separation".'

Seeing red

It is of no surprise then that there has been concern about increasing and ensuring the constant flow of highly skilled individuals into the field, resulting in feverish activity by all concerned. BMA's CEO John Smith says, ‘A historical decline in numbers undertaking mining education and training have meant that we have to take a fresh approach to attracting and retaining people. Our demand for engineers, tradespersons, apprentices and trainees will grow. We have put our money where our future is.'

One element of BMA's ‘Skills for Growth' programme is an alliance with the University of Queensland (UQ) - an AUS$2.7 million package that will fund two new professorial positions in mining engineering and minerals processing, plus an improved coal processing lecture series.

As well as enhancing the quality of teaching at the university, ‘Students will benefit from a closer relationship with BMA', says Dr Dominic Howarth, UQ Mining Engineering Expert. ‘Our students will undertake vacation work and some may undertake cooperative programmes (one year in industry prior to graduation).' BMA has also committed AUS$3.4 million per annum to the company's new cadetship scheme that combines full-time, on-the-job work experience with vocational training, for those who prefer work-based learning. Around 30 cadetships will be awarded in 2006.

Back from the brink

All this activity perfectly complements the focus of MTEC. In 1999, the organisation was established by the MCA as a result of its report, ‘Back from the Brink' (1998), which concluded that the ‘Australian minerals education system, in its current form, is fragile' due to a number of reasons which include -

  • Acute shortages of talented academic staff caused by uncompetitive remuneration packages compared to within the minerals industry.
  • Small student populations but high relative costs threatening closure of mining engineering courses.
  • Industry uptake of new graduates is affected by the ‘boom or bust cycle'.
  • Industry interaction with the tertiary education system has been ad hoc.

It was concluded that restructuring minerals tertiary education, in line with the more market-orientated and flexible approach to learning in Australia's universities today, was crucial to securing the constant supply of future mining professionals and ensuring that the industry maintained its international competitiveness. According to the report, if this was not achieved, it could push the education system ‘over the brink of viability as a long term supplier of graduates', posing ‘severe long term problems to the Australian minerals industry. In the past, shortfalls have been met by the leading schools in the UK, USA and New Zealand. However, these schools have dramatically weakened in recent years and many have closed.'

MTEC was therefore established to address the skills shortage by fostering a partnership between government authorities, industry and academia.

Delivering solutions

One of MTEC's flagship projects is Mining Education Australia, the first national school of mining engineering, which will share the educational resources of three of Australia's leading educational institutions - UQ, the University of New South Wales and Curtin University. It is also funded heavily by the Australian minerals industry.

The school will operate for students in the third and fourth years of their undergraduate course. They can either complete their first two years at one of the partner universities, and automatically qualify for entry, or attend another Australian university and then apply for a transfer, subject to the fulfilment of certain prerequisites.

The distributed delivery of courses at the three universities will commence next year, with a new curriculum being developed in conjunction with BMA. Some modules will be online, others may be taught by moving world experts and university lecturers among the three institutions, or by bringing students together in workshops.

Another area of activity is engaging with local communities. ‘It is our (MCA) view that if the minerals industry focuses on improving its relationships with communities, it will earn back some of the social capital it has lost in the past,' explains Tuckwell. ‘If the industry is recognised as responsible, then more people are likely to want work for it'. The result is a framework for sustainable development, ‘Enduring Value'. It offers guidance to companies and stakeholders on how to implement sustainable development principles on the ground in exploration, mining and minerals processing operations.

Global shortage

However, the skills shortage in the minerals industry is by no means unique to Australia. Tuckwell says that the ‘situation in fact is worldwide. Brazil, China and India are about the only countries where there appears to be an adequate supply.' This is echoed by a report on the ‘Status of Education of Mining Industry Professionals' (2002) commissioned by the International Institute for Environment and Development. The paper uses Australia as an international model for change.

‘Australia has in place policies and strategies at many levels that should in time improve the quality and quantity of professionals and trade persons entering the mining industry,' insists Howarth.

But one thing seems certain, it will be career opportunities and awareness rather than money that will be the driving force for recruiting and retaining professionals in the industry. According to Tuckwell, ‘There are some large salary packages being offered to new mining engineering graduates, but "chequebook recruitment" is not the answer. These salaries may be impacting on student decisions to study mining engineering, however, our student surveys [show that] less than 10% of first-year students indicated that salary was a main driver.'


Further information:

University of Queensland
Minerals Council of Australia
BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance

Also see Materials World, July 2005, pp14, for Brian Hosking's take on the global shortage of skilled mining professionals.