Securing the future workforce of Australian mining

The Gold Fields team at the St Ives operation in Western Australia. Image: Gold Fields

How are mining’s job prospects shaping up in the face of an economic slowdown? Vanessa Zhou explores the opportunities with Alcoa, Gold Industry Group and Australia’s minerals councils.

The mining industry is positioning itself to brush aside fears that a skills shortage will slow its future growth.

Mining companies aren’t managing this challenge alone, with governments and industry bodies also playing their part.

Alcoa is a major company with a history of training generations of skilled tradespeople. The company has trained more than 1600 tradespeople through its apprentice program over the past 55 years.

It now has 101 apprentices working at its Western Australian operations and another 10 in Portland, Victoria.

If the apprentices follow their predecessors, they wil have an opportunity to secure roles at Alcoa’s bauxite mines and alumina refineries in the Perth and Peel regions, or at the Portland aluminium smelter.

Most of these apprentices were drawn from local communities, and they are trained to be mechanical fitters, fabricators/welders, heavy duty plant mechanics and industrial electrical instrumentation technicians.

“In this sense, the impact of our apprenticeship program is bigger than Alcoa. It supports industry more broadly,” Alcoa director human resources and employee relations Matthew Gleeson says.

The impact of COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the continuity of Alcoa’s 2020 apprenticeship program.

Despite a few changes in response to COVID-19 restrictions, the apprentices have been undertaking their first-year training.

“Some have been completing virtual learning with the technical and further education (TAFE) colleges,” Gleeson continues.

“At any point in time, creating training and development opportunities for employees is important for long-term business success. Not only does it support operational performance, but it has the added advantage of enhancing employee retention and job satisfaction, which provides immeasurable benefit to the business.”

The Australian Government has also chosen the mining industry for a skills organisation pilot. Through the initiative, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has taken steps to accelerate 1000 new apprenticeships to fulfil skills and training needs across Australia.

“The Mining Skills Organisation Pilot is part of the Australian Government’s skills package, Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow, which will help train highly skilled and qualified workers, including in regional areas, to meet the needs of businesses,” MCA chief executive Tania Constable says.

“The pilot will help prepare industry and learners for large-scale skills shifts by delivering new ways of learning, which are responsive to a changing world, technology shifts and future global demand.”

Each apprentice will be paired with a mining employer upfront and receive accelerated education and training linked to the job. The pilot welcomes people who are at various points in their career to join the mining industry.

They will be able to develop skill sets and qualifications linked to technology adoption in the modern mining sector, including automation and data analytics, which are also transferrable to the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) and allied sectors.

Not forgetting to emphasise safety as a core principle in the pilot, Constable says the program will embed a culture of respect that is core to the minerals industry and include mental health as part of the program.

“Investing in our people, skills and innovation means we can continue to be a global leader in mining competitiveness and deliver fulfilling careers for people in highly paid, highly skilled jobs,” Constable says.

Launched in May, the pilot will operate for two years as a joint collaboration between the Australian mining industry and the Australian Government.

Meanwhile, Gold Industry Group (GIG) has launched an online hub of employment opportunities and career pathways known as Gold Jobs. It acts as a platform that brings all jobs in the sector together into one place.

GIG chairman and the Perth Mint chief executive Richard Hayes says the gold sector plays a big role in Australia’s economy.

“In 2018-19, the Perth Mint was the third largest exporter in Australia behind Rio Tinto and BHP. Our exports exceeded those of Fortescue Metals Group and Woodside Energy by value,” he says.

“That illustrates just how important the gold industry is to the whole of Australia. And Gold Jobs fits in very well with what we do at GIG: to tell a story about Australian gold and help educate the broader Australian public about the value the gold sector brings to the economy.”

Hayes says the online jobs site is about more than advertising positions, ranging from entry-level opportunities through to management roles. It also tells its audience about the gold sector and the skill sets required for those roles.

This comes from the sector’s own existing workforce, who talk about their daily work in pre-recorded videos.

Gold Jobs visitors can range from existing gold sector employees and teachers to students, whether they are of school age and want to familiarise themselves with the gold industry, or university students looking for the right career.

“I’m not aware of any other company who does this. Other recruitment portals advertise lots of job vacancies, but none profile the hiring company the way we do. We’re not only trying to find people to work in the industry, but also those who will fit in with the company culture,” Hayes says.

“It’s a challenge when people have to leave their families behind during a four-week roster. It doesn’t appeal to everybody.

“But mining companies have tried to make fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) as seamless and painless as possible. That’s not a challenge that’s only unique to the gold mining industry, but also to nickel, iron ore, copper and oil and gas.”

According to Hayes, mining companies have done a good job in handling these situations carefully and provided mental health initiatives on site.

“They’ve spent a lot of time making the effort and it shows,” he adds.

As for GIG, the team had been working on the concept behind Gold Jobs for over a year by the time it launched in May.

Hayes believes there is no perfect time to launch an initiative, but during COVID-19 was as good a time as any. Within just over a month, 87 roles were advertised across the Australian gold sector.

A surface reverse circulation (RC) worker with Swick Mining Services. Image: Swick Mining Services

 

“We’re certain we’ll see more coming on as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and as Australia is opening up again, allowing the flow of people within different states,” Hayes says.

“The fact that the gold industry is employing and not laying people off is great news for Australia, at a time when so many others have lost their jobs.”

NSW Minerals Council chief executive Steve Galilee acknowledges that COVID-19 has clearly had a big economic impact, with the state’s sector also being affected.

“While gold prices are strong, lower prices for coal in particular are creating some challenges. So far there has only been a limited employment impact overall, and the industry is seeking to support as many jobs as possible,” he says.

But Galilee believes that the long-term future for the mining sector is positive. He is convinced that strong fundamentals remain intact despite COVID-19.

This article also appears in the August issue of Australian Mining.

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