Diversity shapes the future of mining workforces

Image: BHP Billiton

BHP Billiton set a new standard for diversity in the mining industry last year when it announced the ambitious target of making half of its workforce women by 2025.

A gender diverse workforce improved productivity, the company said, while conceding that just 17 per cent of its global workforce at the time was female.

BHP chief Andrew McKenzie accepted that achieving the target would be a major challenge for the diversified miner. In saying that, he highlighted what has emerged as a common recruitment challenge for the industry, with many companies openly pursuing diversity as their key human resources goal.

An even spread of employees from both genders is, of course just one form of diversity that mining organisations target – the industry has also focused on developing diverse workforces that include Indigenous Australians where possible.

BHP is also active in achieving this through its Western Australian iron ore business, which has awarded around 70 scholarships to Indigenous Australians since 2009 in a range of disciplines, including geology, engineering, health and commerce.

A 2015 survey by the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy revealed that 5.5 per cent of workers in the state’s resources sector were Indigenous Australians, with 25 per cent of these employees being women.

According to recruitment agency Hays’ WA regional director Chris Kent, diversity was a notable recruitment trend of 2016, and one that looks set to continue this year.

“Diversity has been massive. I think they’ve had some respite from the skills shortage during the construction boom and employers have been able to put greater emphasis and selection criteria on hiring more female and Indigenous candidates,” Kent explained.

“Most of the majors have improved their target numbers – I don’t expect that trend to change.”

Building diversity

Kent added that the push for diversity had created one of the industry’s few skills shortages in a market environment where recruitment activity had been significantly lower than in the past.

“There is debate around whether these candidates are out there or not, or if it is something that needs to be addressed more in schools,” Kent explained.

Research has already taken place into how the resources industry can overcome this shortage. According to the Australian Women in Resources Alliance (AWRA), by implementing flexible work arrangements in their workplaces mining companies boost their ability to attract and retain more women.

Diversity has been massive. Most of the majors have improved their target numbers – I don’t expect that trend to change – Chris Kent

“In recent years the Australian resource industry has overhauled its recruitment and human resources practices to diversify the skills and talent mix of its workforces. However, putting flexible work into practice at their operations remains a challenge for many employers,” AWRA spokesperson Tara Diamond said.

“Flexibility can be particularly challenging at resource industry workplaces that involve remote locations, projects operating on a 24-hour basis and often with health and safety rules restricting the practical ability to have multiple rosters or other options for flexible work.”

The AWRA released a guide to flexible work last year to help the industry become more diverse.

Technology impact

While Kent believes the trend towards diverse workforces will continue in 2017, he isn’t buying into talk that modern technologies will severely impact traditional mining roles held by humans…not yet anyway.

In recent years, emerging technologies, such as autonomous equipment and drones, have been introduced at many mining operations in Australia, prompting speculation they would remove the need for many positions traditionally held by humans.

However, Kent believes that emerging technologies are more likely to improve safety and operational efficiencies than decimate jobs in the short- to medium-term.

“I don’t think there is a new, fantastic technology that is going to take jobs away,” Kent said.

“It is very hard to retrofit existing mine sites with autonomous trucks or drill rigs – so if we are not building new mines it is hard to see them taking over. But I think any new mines we see from here will have a lot more emphasis on technology and efficiencies within the supply chain whether it be autonomous or machine learning.

“The use of drones may improve safety risk if it is a high-risk environment.”

Diversity has been a priority for BHP Billiton at its iron ore operations.

Recruitment focus

Instead of focusing on ways to replace humans with technology, Kent said mining companies were recruiting personnel with more rounded skills than in the past, meaning they could cover multiple positions if needed.

He said this was a continuation of the human resource strategies that many companies had implemented during the recent industry downturn, which aimed to cut costs and improve operational efficiencies.

And despite recruitment optimism returning in recent months to many commodity sectors, such as iron ore, gold, coal and base metals, Kent believes this strategy will remain a key priority for mining companies when they engage a recruitment agency like Hays.

“Essentially this is all part of the rationalisation and the drive for efficiency. If you are not a multi tasker now then it is likely you will be in the first cut of redundancies when the next cut comes,” Kent said.

“Whereas, those that have shown they have a good safety record, clear medical history and can maintain their tickets in a number of areas then they are probably going to be the most sought after candidates.”

This article also appears in the February 2017 edition of Australian Mining.