Is a mining skills shortage looming?

Less FIFO travel restrictions can alleviate a mining skills shortage.

Accenture head of resources David Burns believes the risk of a mining skills shortage must be addressed immediately to avoid any material impact.

Australia’s mining sector employs more than 250,000 people as of February 2021, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data.

More than one million other jobs are also supported by the resources sector.

The mining industry has remained prosperous in recent years, with employment growth in the five years to February 2021 growing by 15.7 per cent. 

This increase isn’t expected to slow down, with the ABS expecting mining to need another 21,700 workers from 2020 to 2025. 

Even with the onset of COVID-19, employment in the resources sector grew by 8.5 per cent between February 2020 and November 2020. 

With employment high, mining’s future looks promising in Australia, however a skills shortage crisis is feared. 

The perfect storm

Accenture head of resources David Burns says employment strategies must be revised before it’s too late. 

“Mining is benefitting from a perfect storm: unprecedented stimulus measures in China and elsewhere have increased demand for almost all commodities, from iron ore to gold to battery metals,” Burns says. 

“Even coal prices are starting to turn and once mothballed development projects are now deemed economic. 

“The capital markets have returned, providing funds for exploration and development. However, skilled labour has struggled to keep up in the midst of COVID-related travel restrictions.”

A key issue has been the lack of international workforces due to travel restrictions, with less restrictive fly-in fly-out (FIFO) travel being key to amplifying worker skills, Burns continues.

“State and international border restrictions have made mining companies more dependent on a smaller pool of local workforces,” he says. 

“Being able to support these pools with less restrictive FIFO travel would open a welcome avenue of relief.”

Amid interstate travel restrictions, the Australian Government announced a national resources workforce strategy as part of its Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package. 

The strategy is planning for job creation and skills demand, supporting local employment and increasing the availability of resources-related training. 

Federal Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia Keith Pitt reinforces that skills are a vital ingredient in the sector’s mixing pot of growth potential. 

“The sector relies on certain skills to unlock new resources potential and productivity and to maintain our status as a world-leading supplier of resources and energy,” Pitt says.

“This new strategy aims to help the sector meet its needs for skills and to promote resources job opportunities and training to Australian workers.”

Burns, however, says the removal of local hiring quotas will benefit the number of skilled workers entering the industry. 

“Removal of the quotas would cast the recruitment net wider during a time of intense need for skilled workers,” Burns says. 

“Companies are yet to hit the panic button on staffing, but it is only a matter of time before industry recruiters dust off their tried-and-tested strategy from a decade ago, namely, trying to poach fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers at airports. 

“This does little to solve the staffing challenges for the sector as a whole, especially when foreign and interstate travel is restricted.”

Without the right skillset and training, mine workers are more prone to putting themselves in danger on site. 

Burns says it’s a given that increasing worker skillsets will improve the risks associated.

“Thanks to the industry’s ‘essential’ status in Australia, miners are established as key workers and the industry never shut down for COVID restrictions during 2020,” he says. 

“Whilst being essential, the work undertaken is also safety-critical and the roles and responsibilities that any individual can have significantly impacts on the wider team; it’s therefore vitally important to have the right skills in the right places.”

For Burns, automated equipment would open doors for a ‘gig economy’ in the mining workforce.

He also suggests that automation could assist with industry diversity, attracting more women to resources sector jobs. 

“Automated equipment presents the opportunity to access talent pools that may not normally be available for, or interested in, FIFO work or specifically experienced in mining,” Burns says. 

“Operators, many of whom could be part-time, could simply work in the head offices or remote operations centres (ROCs).

“Increased automation ultimately opens up the opportunity for a ‘gig economy’ of mine workers, with operators able to swap between different machines and sites within the span of a single day. 

“This would effectively spread the skills pool among various projects, lowering the impact of the skills shortage.”

Accenture head of resources David Burns.

 

Flying high

To increase mining skills, Burns encourages vaccine prioritisation for FIFO workers to allow for less restrictive FIFO travel. 

In February, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) mapped out its COVID-19 strategy for prioritising vaccines to workers in the resources industry, in conjunction with the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. 

FIFO workers were one of the groups considered a priority in the strategy.

“Two-thirds of the 243,000 people directly employed in resources and many of the 1.1 million direct and indirect jobs in the METS (mining equipment, technology and services) sector work in regional and remote Australia,” MCA chief executive officer Tania Constable tells Safe to Work. 

“FIFO workers are employed across the resources sector providing specific skills in demand which can’t be found locally. 

“FIFO workers enhance the industry’s ability to maintain the best workforce and drive prosperity in Australia, making substantial contributions to investment, exports, wages, jobs and government revenue.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic workers have largely moved within the states they are working temporarily and the MCA acknowledges the substantial sacrifices that workers have made and continue to make, including long periods away from their families, friends and home during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Constable says FIFO workers have faced impacts to their mental health due to hard border closures from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Border closures in 2020 resulted in workers rostered on extended shifts. Some workers were also unable to return to family when off shift, therefore spending significant periods of time separated from families,” Constable says. 

“This contributed to a range of additional pressures on individuals and families and increased the risks of mental health impacts.  

“It is hoped that as vaccines are rolled out and a significant portion of the population is vaccinated, the likelihood of borders closures will be drastically reduced.”

According to Burns, the industry requires less restrictive FIFO travel to keep up with mining’s forecast growth.

“State and international border restrictions have made mining companies more dependent on a smaller pool of local workforces,” he says. 

“Being able to support these pools with less restrictive FIFO travel would open a welcome avenue of relief.”

A plan for the future

The MCA’s Mining Skills Organisation Pilot (MSOP), launched in 2019, also aims to address the potential skills shortage on the horizon. 

“Australia’s minerals industry already has a highly-skilled, highly-paid workforce that is very well trained,” Constable says. “However, the combination of technology adoption, industry and learner expectations and skills availability pressures will test how tradespeople are trained and inducted into the mining industry.

“New project hubs in digital transformation, apprenticeships and attraction and retention – part of the industry-led MSOP being co-ordinated by the MCA with partners across the mining industry and supported by the Australian Government – will deliver training faster to accelerate skills development and make Australia’s apprenticeship system even more relevant to industry and learners.”

The MSOP also aims to attract workers from other industries, Constable continues. 

“They will also boost opportunities for new talent entering the Australian minerals industry and allow existing mining workers – as well as workers from other industries – to access new skills, enabling them to move into mining or shift to new types of jobs if already working in the sector,” she says.

Burns says if the skills shortage is not addressed, a major challenge will be inadequate skills pools.

“Safety is the first priority and guiding consideration for any industry operation. As such, the skills shortage will be factored and mitigated into operational planning processes to maintain safety protocols and safeguard project timeframes,” he says. 

“It’s without a doubt a challenge to resource a less than optimal skills pool across a booming industry, but that is exactly why the imperative should now be set towards investing in these short-term and long-term solutions that cast the net wider, ease restrictions and streamline onboarding processes.”

Adapting to the skills required for maintaining safety and productivity will continue to remain necessary in the mining industry, Constable adds.

“The skill to keep yourself and your workmates safe is central to culture and practice in the Australian mining industry,” she says.

“With increasing technology adoption, workers are right to expect that VET (vocational education and training) sector qualifications will make them job-ready or allow them to move between jobs in the mining industry. 

“Upskilling and reskilling is constant and as technology continues to evolve, it is critical that our workforce keeps pace with the skills required to boost safety and productivity.” 

This story also appears in the May issue of Safe To Work.

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