Attracting the next generation to mining

Evolution Mining chairman Jake Klein highlighted what a lot of people had been thinking when he discussed the declining interest in mining amongst Australia’s youth.

“Our industry faces significant headwinds,” the gold miner’s chairman explained at the company’s 2017 annual general meeting. “If we are to sustain ourselves as globally competitive for the benefit of all Australians, there are issues we must address with urgency.”

Klein’s key concern that needs attention really hit home: “We need to make mining an attractive career option for young people again. We need to compete with the allure of the likes of Facebook and Google to attract and retain the best and brightest talent back to our industry.”

Klein noted that the University of Western Australia (UWA) was forecasting only eight students would graduate as mining engineers in 2018, while enrolments for mining engineering at the University of New South Wales were expected to be the lowest in 40 years with just eight.

These worrying forecasts surfaced as mining in Australia started to see skills shortages emerge in vital areas during the second half of 2017, including engineering.

Hays Recruitment reported, as far back as last July, that renewed optimism in the Australian mining marketplace and improved sales prices were helping increase job vacancies on both sides of the country.

With certain mining skills in short supply and graduate numbers dropping, what can the industry and educational institutions do to help attract more young people?

Australian universities lead the way

Curtin University’s Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) has maintained a program up there with the world’s best despite a volatile marketplace. In March 2017, Curtin was ranked second globally for its mining and mineral engineering program by the QS World University Rankings.

The University of Queensland and The University of New South Wales also finished highly in the survey, ranking third and fourth, respectively.

WASM has also sustained a healthy level of enrolments, with 1291 in 2017, including 506 postgraduates and 199 first-year students.

Even with world-class educational opportunities available for mining, WASM director Sam Spearing conceded that interest in the industry amongst the next generation had fallen.

He believes this is primarily due to persistent negativity that is often misleading today’s youth about the industry.

As you might expect from a university director, Spearing said stronger education about the modern mining industry was needed to reverse the drop off.

“I think there is negative publicity associated with mining in general, as well as ignorance of what mining is up to now – the fact that it is much higher tech these days,” Spearing said.

“Mining is also a lot more community and sustainability focused now. Some people seem to still have the idea that mining is about a pick and shovel.”

Spearing said the evolution of a surveyor’s role in mining was a typical example of how the industry was changing and becoming more attractive to tech-focused young people.

“They are now using drones, lasers and radars – it is actually high-tech stuff,” he said.

“I know that big data is a common buzzword that everybody uses, and probably overuses, but if you think about mining, big data is one of the prime places where it is used.”

Where do our smartphones come from?

India Cywinski-Jan, a university graduate who is aspiring towards a career in mining, believes today’s youth are not so much disinterested, but instead have a disassociation with where their smartphones and cars come from.

Education is also the answer to this issue, according to Cywinski-Jan. She said it was important to start teaching young people about mining’s role in the development of these products as soon as possible.

“To improve future pipelines a focus on introducing geological literacy in primary school is critical,” she said.

“Throughout my time in Western Australia I have been an active volunteer with associations such as Geoscience Western Australia and Get into Mining which are trying to bridge this gap and introduce students to the wondering career opportunities available in the mining sector.

“Although a lot of kids in Melbourne are lucky enough to go panning for gold at Sovereign Hill as part of a school excursion, taking them to an old mine or quarry would give them exposure to where these minerals come from.”

Spearing agreed that industry and universities like Curtin should be active at a grassroots level to accurately promote what mining now involves, as well as the subjects that guide students towards the industry.

“We need to attract more people by incentivising schools to have them take more advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classes,” Spearing said. “We are also working through the media more to talk to the mining industry as a whole.”

Cywinski-Jan’s first of two degrees was in environmental science at Monash University in Melbourne. She also recently completed a Masters degree in hydrogeology at UWA.

Just as Spearing pointed to the lack of knowledge around the emerging use of technology in mining, Cywinski-Jan believes the environmental aspect is also misunderstood.

“The mining industry for an environmental scientist is somewhat counter-intuitive because most people see the mining industry as a behemoth that destroys the environment,” Cywinski-Jan explained.

“However, my experience so far across several commodities has been that environmental management in the front of the minds of many of the majors and even the mid-tiers but it is not just to appease the regulators but as part of their social license to operate.”

Are jobs easy to find?

With mining recovering from the commodities downturn, and skills shortages emerging, jobs are undoubtedly easier for graduates to find than earlier this decade.

“I think they are finding it fairly easy to get into the industry,” Spearing said. “It is interesting because a lot of the contracting companies are taking more of our graduates than has happened before.”

For niche areas of mining, however, securing a job isn’t as straightforward, Cywinski-Jan explained.

To enhance her prospects, Cywinski-Jan has been taking a vacation work program with Canadian miner Kirkland Lake Gold at the Cosmo gold operation in the Northern Territory.

“Finding a job in any industry is difficult but for niche specialities such as environmental science and hydrogeology it is very difficult,” she explained.

Cywinski-Jan said she put in “countless hours” of networking, internships and work experience to stand out from the crowd as a student. She also worked hard to become an active member of the mining community by attending major industry events and forums around the country.

Looking back at her studies, Cywinski-Jan said universities courses could improve their focus on the skills needed to prepare students for a job, both for the technical space and soft skills.

“Courses such as geology, hydrogeology and to some extent environmental science need to have more of an industry focus rather than being purely theoretical,” Cywinski- Jan said.

“Additionally, equipping students with the right skills within the university or with their industry partners helps students build confidence and exposes them to real problems and solutions.”

Whatever the next approach might be, mining in Australia is aware of the challenges it faces to attract future workers.

This article also appears in the February edition of Australian Mining.