Coal mine kicking production goals with cleanskin workforce

When Glencore started the recruitment process for its $1 billion Ulan West mine there was a skills shortage in the sector so the company took the unprecedented step of employing a workforce made up of mostly cleanskins.

In November 2010, the NSW Government granted Glencore permission to develop a second underground mine next to the existing Ulan No.3 longwall mine.

The new mine cost $1 billion to build and will produce 6.7 million tonnes of export thermal coal per annum for 20 years.

Construction of the project started in May 2011 and first longwall coal was produced on Friday, 16 May 2014.

Everything went to plan for the company, with the new mine coming online with no issues – it was on-time and on-budget.

However the operation had one big difference: its workforce was made up of people who had no prior experience in the sector with more than 90 per cent of the 362 workers cleanskins.

Ulan West’s operations manager David Ribaux said people outside of the company doubted a new mine could be developed and run by a green workforce.

“But the company had full faith,” Ribaux said.



Ulan hits the road

Faced with the need to recruit more than 300 workers, but staring down a massive skills shortage in the sector, Ulan decided to take their recruitment drive to the masses.

The company hosted a number of roadshows in New South Wales and Queensland explaining to people how to apply and what they were looking for in new recruits.

“The industry was booming and there weren’t the experienced people we needed available so we decided to take it to the masses and let people who didn’t have any industry experience apply,” Ulan’s HR co-ordindator Stephanie Gelland explained.

“This was particularly important around NSW locally, and in regional centres.”

Ribaux said the initiative was successful in bringing attention to the recruitment needs of the mine.

“I think I shook hands with 10,000 people,” Ribaux said.

All up, more than 6000 people applied for jobs at the mine and from diverse backgrounds including farming, IT, hospitality, and retail.

A positive attitude, a commitment to safety, drive, tenacity, honesty and integrity were all traits the company looked for when searching for workers.

“We wanted to draw on a particular type of person to build the company,” Gelland explained.

Of the 6000, 600 people were invited to take part in an assessment process.

This included face-to-face interviews, role playing scenarios, and testing of abstract reasoning and psychology.

Applicants were asked questions to find out if they had the attributes the company was looking for and to see how they related to others.

“How does mining affect communities and what can you do this minimise this?” is an example of the questions applicants were expected to answer.

Gelland explained that the questions for recruits would have been the same whether the applicants had experience in the mining sector or not.

“We were looking for a specific type of person,” she said.


Once the workforce was chosen- the real test for Ulan began: how do you train hundreds of people with no mining experience?

To tackle this problem it developed a purpose-built training facility at its Baal Bone coal mine near Lithgow.

Every morning the company would drive busloads of the new recruits to the facility to train them on everything they needed to know to hit the ground running at Ulan West.

Dubbed the “coal mine recruit school” Ribaux said Baal Bone mine was set up to replicate an underground mine on the surface.

“They had visibility but could identify what the confines of the underground were,” Ribaux said.

 “While one person was operating the machine, other people in their crew watched on so they could learn while they were watching.”

The site was also set up so it replicated what they would see at Ulan West with the same signage, equipment, processes, and even the same hard hats.

“They started out in a theory classroom, then went out to this surface area where they could not harm anything and see what was going on in the confines, and the next step was to go underground and do it,” Ribaux explained.

There was also an area on the surface where the workers could build conveyors and do maintenance and manual handling to enable them to practice the work before completing it underground.

The training modules lasted for three months per crew and were delivered by Glencore staff themselves with external providers on site to provide certifications and qualifications where necessary.

Ribaux said with no production to interfere with training, recruits were free to make the most out of the learning environment.

Even supervisors and those who had prior experience in mining went through the training with their crews.

Ribaux said this meant when the time came for the workers to start at Ulan West everyone knew what was expected of them.

He said the training program developed by the company has shown it can work to train a green workforce.

“It showed it worked because we went into our first full year of production having been the safest underground mine in our group, and exceeded our targets,” he said.





Creating Culture

With the whole workforce going through training together and starting work at the mine at the same time, Gelland said socially the miners are close in and outside of work.

And because most started from day one at the operation, Gelland said there is a sense of pride associated with working at the operation.

“The people we employed have been grateful for the opportunity and have been really enthusiastic and keen to give it a go and make it work,” Gelland said.

“They also have some inbuilt pride in what they’ve done and achieved here,” Ribaux added.

“Most people have been here since the beginning so there is a lot to be proud of.”

One worker who has been at Ulan West since day one said the process had its struggles but was extremely rewarding.

” It was a challenge when we first started but everyone’s picked it up,” the worker said.

“I enjoy the daily challenges that it offers – we have targets we have to meet so it’s always a good challenge to go and achieve those targets.”

“The cleanskins have created a good “go-get-em” attitude to get the coal out of the ground,” an experienced staffer said.

With the success of Ulan West had in recruiting and training a green workforce with great results, Gelland said she expects more operations to take Glencore’s lead in the way they implement recruitment drives and subsequent training.

“I think the program we’ve implemented has been watched very closely and certainly has delivered the results we were looking for,” Gelland said.

“I’m sure it will be adopted within Glencore and probably in other organisations as well.” 

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