Employer of choice

Mining companies are increasingly looking to Indigenous communities to fill growing labour forces.

Many companies have had active and explicit Indigenous employment strategies in place for some time, and the proportion of Indigenous employees as part of their workforce is quite high.

Argyle Diamond mine in the Kimberley has targeted local Indigenous communities as an important part of their workforce, and is the inaugural Australian Mining Employer of Choice.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia chief executive Tim Shanahan told Australian Mining the company has set the “gold standard” when it comes to engaging local Indigenous communities for labour.

However, the industries record has been mixed, according to Department of Workplace Relations (DEWR) State Manager (WA) Colin Nagle.

“In the past land access agreements and Native Title agreements between mining companies and traditional owners have been a major driver for Indigenous employment, but many of those agreements were loosely worded, and Indigenous people didn’t enjoy the benefits as a result of the resources developments in their regions,” Nagle told Australian Mining.

With the skills pool at critically low levels though, there is an increasing focus from mining companies to recruit local Indigenous people.

“The competitiveness in the Western Australian labour market has meant that fly-in fly-out (FIFO) operations can be quite expensive in terms of staff turnover. People live in Perth and it doesn’t really matter whether they hop on a plane to the Goldfields or the Pilbara,” Nagle said.

Many companies are looking to employ locally, and in many of those places the local population that isn’t already in a job is the local Indigenous community.

While social and altruistic imperatives have driven companies to increase Indigenous representation in their workforce, the imperative today is economic.

Successfully employing Indigenous Australians from local communities involves a lot more than simply advertising for positions vacant.

It is a long-term process that starts with engaging local communities, and then providing pre-employment education and training.

“The process doesn’t end with work placement,” Nagle said.

Ongoing mentoring, case management, and development has been attributed to the success of Indigenous placement programs such as that conducted by Argyle Diamonds.

The company’s first intake of Aboriginal workers numbered 14 in 1985, accounting for 2.5% of the workforce.

After fluctuating during the 1990’s, that commitment has grown since 1999, following expansion of the mine’s workforce and the company’s decision to source a greater proportion of its workforce from Aboriginal communities within the region.

With the introduction of company plans to enhance Aboriginal employment at the mine (partly as a strategy to ensure that the mine had an ongoing adequate supply of labour), the numbers have steadily increased. And they are now poised to grow even more rapidly.

The decision to build an underground mine has increased labour demand dramatically in both construction and production, and overlapping construction phases will result in underground production occurring alongside further pit expansion.

To address this scenario, the mine has adopted a workforce strategy involving a rapid winding back of the fly-in-fly-out workers workforce to just 20% with the bulk of the workforce being sourced from the broader local region, and with 40% to be made up of Aboriginal people.

To recruit locally, Argyle Diamonds has created innovative recruitment and training practices, as the mainstream practices being used were making it too difficult for Indigenous people to gain employment.

The strategy also focuses on the employment of significant numbers of Apprentices and Trainees.

“Argyle Diamonds establishes relationships with communities and families well before people become a member of their workforce. They’re investing in the development of relationships and cultivating those in terms of prospective employees,” Nagle said.

“They’re investing heavily in training and addressing the multiple barriers that people have to employment such as work readiness, substance abuse, literacy, numeracy, and licences.

Once Indigenous people have been employed one-on-one case management and mentoring support is available to each employee.

This may help employees make adjustments to fit into the workforce, and manage community issues that are brought about by working on site.

The company also has a two day cross-cultural training program for their whole site workforce.

This has been developed and run by the Indigenous elders in the community.

As a result of Argyle’s leadership there are now many examples in Western Australia of companies with sophisticated Indigenous employment strategies making substantial investments in Indigenous employment.

This goes as far back as investments in school programs through to school-to-work transitions and then post-placement support.

A success story

There are many stories of successful Indigenous placement programs, says Nagle.

“In each case they are adopting holistic strategies, from pre-employment and pre-vocational training to vocational training, placement and post-placement support.”

One of the strategies increasingly adopted is partnering with Job Network providers and Community Development and Employment Projects (CDEPs) to deliver training to CDEP participants tailored to the requirements of the employer, so it’s not more training for training sake, it’s training for the job,” Nagle said.

Anybody that gets through the training program is guaranteed a job, unlike the past where they’ve done training and nothing has come of it.

“That’s one of the best practice models being adopted increasingly across many companies,” he said.

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