By Paul Grad

Although the Australian mining industry is currently reeling from the crisis brought about by the proposal of a new tax by the federal government, other issues, such as the shortage of skilled personnel, have been worrying mining companies for some time.

The preoccupation with skills shortages is the result of a prediction by the industry, rather than an acute shortage. Before the global financial crisis the industry had already foreseen difficulties in finding suitably qualified people to meet its requirements to 2015. Now that the crisis is coming to an end, the industry predicts even more people will be needed than was envisaged before the crisis.

Mining employs about 200,000 people in Australia—about 1.6% of the total workforce. The median age for workers in the mining industry is 40 years and median earnings are about A$1,750/week (before tax) for full-time employees.

The Minerals Council of Australia, headquartered in Canberra, predicts an additional 86,000 workers are needed by the industry this decade.

Rio Tinto’s media manager Gervase Greene said finding and keeping people is a challenge. However, he said, his company sees it as more a people problem than a skills problem, using as an example the living conditions and the cost of living in the Pilbara region. People usually stay there for two or three years and don’t want to stay any longer, he said.

Rio Tinto has introduced several measures to tackle the problem. It now flies its workers in twice weekly from Busselton, about 220 km south of Perth.

It also has flights from communities such as Carnarvon, Geraldton and Broome. Workers usually stay in the Pilbara for two weeks, then have one week off. Recently the company introduced a fourand- a-half-month parental leave as an added incentive.

Deb Jones, manager of R&D at the Mining Industry Skills Center (MISC), a not-for-profit organization based in Brisbane, Queensland, that informs government on how to maximize the skills of workers in the resources industry, said the long lead time of four to five years to train a professional is one of the main issues. She said some of people in the industry would like to bring in suitably qualified personnel from overseas.

Reforms to the national permanent skilled migrants program, recently announced by the federal government, could help the mining industry ahead of the looming skills shortage. In a statement released on February 8, Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the reforms would allow state and territory governments to prioritize skilled migrants of their own choosing.

According to MISC, the Australian resources sector will continue to experience shortages of geoscientists, mine surveyors, fitter mechanics and electrotechnical tradespeople.

MISC is conducting the Heartbeat Project, which involves collecting employee data from nine major mining employers: Anglo Coal Australia, BHP Billiton, BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance, Centennial Coal, Downer Edi Mining, Leighton Contractors, New Hope Coal, Newcrest Mining and Xstrata Copper. The project will collect data from the companies every year.

MISC believes the resources industry needs to change its thinking on the shortage by creating opportunities for alternative mining methods. Even with additional training, it is anticipated the skills supply will not meet demand in the future.

A study carried out by the National Center for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), another not-for-profit organization, headquartered in Adelaide, South Australia, owned by the federal and state ministers responsible for training, came to similar conclusions regarding the looming skills shortage. According to the study, there will be a particular shortage of mechanical fitters (heavy diesel, mechanical technicians, shovel fitters, drill fitters and schedulers); electricians (particularly those with high-voltage experience), and automotive electricians (heavy vehicles); boilermakers; explosives operators; instrumentation technicians and supervisory personnel with relevant trade experience.

The study also sees location and lifestyle issues as the major barriers to the employment and training of apprentices.

Both employers and apprentices have strong reservations concerning the quality of training. Employers want more say in training content to make it more relevant to industry. Often employers regard the caliber of potential candidates for apprenticeships as poor. Apprentices find the lack of good information and advice on career paths and the lack of support during their training a key reason for discontinuing training.

NCVER recommends the industry encourage existing and mature-age workers with relevant trade skills and experience to undertake apprenticeships, launch campaigns to encourage school students to enter traditional trade apprenticeships, explore the benefits of introducing “bonded scholarships” which provide apprentices with extra financial incentives during their training contracts and which require them to work in the industry for a predetermined period of time after completion of their apprenticeships, investigate a variety of models of acceleration of apprenticeship programs, and look into the employment of overseas workers.

It stressed acceleration of apprenticeship completion or “fast-tracking,” such as the Queensland Smart Skills Program and similar programs in New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania. While apprentices are still required to sign the traditional four-year contract, their programs are aimed at having apprentices signed off early. The programs aim for a shorter target of 18 months for mature age workers with experience.

A report prepared by a team from the National Institute of Labor Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, titled “The Labor Force Outlook in the Minerals Resources Sector: 2005 to 2015,” comes to similar conclusions regarding labor demand projections in the resources industry. It predicts that the fastest growing demand for workers will be in copper, nickel, bauxite and uranium mining.

It suggests an alternative labor reservoir is the manufacturing sector, which is expected to experience a decline in employment over the next decade. This is likely to provide a pool of available labor with broadly compatible skills.

Women also constitute an alternative labor pool for the resources sector, the report says. Crucial challenges are likely to involve ensuring the provision of child care in remote locations, the design of familyfriendly policies including flexible rosters, and changing the traditionally “masculine culture” associated with mining.

Grad is a free lance writer and regular E&MJ contributor based in Sydney (e-mail: [email protected]).

 

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