The skills shortage is regularly and universally blamed for hindering serious growth in the mining industry.
But exactly what action is needed to fix the problem is an issue of much contention between businesses, industry representatives, and governments.
Each group has its own ideas and recommendations for solving the problem, but almost all stem from a single acknowledgement.
This is that while a market driven approach to employment will to some degree shape the workforce, it cannot be relied upon.
Industry therefore needs the Government to intervene in the labour market to ensure a sufficiently skilled and mobile workforce is available.
Three key areas of intervention have been highlighted by most mining players.
The first is the need to increase the engagement of under represented groups of women, indigenous, and older workers.
This move is about improving the diversity of the workforce and tapping sectors of the population that haven’t traditionally played a role in the industry.
The second is the need to improve and increase our use of skilled immigration.
This move is most strongly endorsed by larger companies and bodies but eyed suspiciously by unions.
The third is the need to improve education by encouraging students to study maths, science and engineering, and developing more pathways to the industry.
But while each of these areas requires specific attention there is also significant overlap.
The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association indicated this in its submission to the Federal Government’s employment taskforce.
According to the APPEA increasing the participation of women in oil and gas needs its own initiatives, but it also requires improvements in education.
“At least part of this issue requires putting effort and funds into the promotion of maths, science, and engineering options for young women in schools and beyond,” it said.
But the APPEA said offering flexible hours, work arrangements, and education was one of the best ways to improve female participation.
“A key word in APPEA’s view is ‘flexibility’,” it said.
Creating a more flexible and diverse workforce is something that can be driven primarily by businesses themselves.
But such flexibility also needs Governmental support, not only in education but in the provision of social services.
According to the APPEA investment on infrastructure such as transport and for recreation will be important in underpinning a more flexible workforce.
Flexibility can also be fostered in how employers engage their staff.
Entity Solutions CEO Matthew Franceschini, a recruitment specialist, told Australian Mining employing on a contract rather than full-time basis made for a more versatile workforce.
“You’ve got to engage someone the way they want to be engaged,” he said.
Franceschini said workers were increasingly turning to contract arrangements, and employers would need to adapt to this if they were to attract and retain staff.
A recent study by Monash University sponsored by Entity found the mining industry was the second most popular workplace for Australian independent contractors.
The study also found the rate of people looking to be employed on a contract basis was on the rise.
Franceschini said employers needed to look beyond traditional full-time roles if they were intent on filling gaps.
“We’ve got to stop looking at recruitment in terms of job titles and start looking at it in terms of the work that needs doing,” he said.
Itas Consulting owner Arthur Alexander told Australian Mining tailoring employment to retain older workers as contractors was not only about the numbers game.
“There’s no point having older workers on-site if they’re only there to fill the numbers,” he said.
“You’re not extracting their full value that way, and these workers have an enormous amount of knowledge and experience.”
“And if they’re in the trades sector, research shows they also have a high degree of safety consciousness.”
Alexander said being able to retain the skills and experience of these workers was an important part of a business’s employment strategy.
He said their mentoring of other staff members also helped fast-track the introduction of other workers into the company.
“Older people tend to be less driven by career ambition and much more willing to share knowledge,” he said.
But according to Alexander more important than retaining older workers will be the need for companies to turn internationally.
“The marketplace for workers will need to start being overseas,” he said.
“We’re already starting to see that with the influx of Irish workers to Gladstone.”
But despite the benefits of looking internationally, Alexander said overseas labour would present problems miners needed to manage.
“There will be tensions from unions, they tend to be very cautious of overseas labour,” he said.
“For mining companies that will start to happen a lot more over the next five years.”
While most often opposed by unions, resource companies are increasingly finding overseas labour a necessity.
In its submission to the Government the APPEA said even with an “open cheque book” there were not enough people in Australia to fill mining positions.
But despite the desperate calls from employers, Drake International national audit manager Lyndall Patterson told Australian Mining it was still difficult to find a job in mining.
“If somebody doesn’t have the right background and skills it’s going to be very hard for them to find a job in the industry,” she said.
Patterson said because of the amount of specialised skill and training required companies were reluctant to hire from outside the industry.
“Highly specialised and technical industries are much harder to tap into,” she said.
“It takes a long time and a lot of money to train people for these roles, so if employers have the option they are going to take an experienced person.”
For younger people the prospect of entering the industry through TAFE or university is much stronger, but still has its difficulties.
These problems were highlighted in October when the WA Government urged apprentices to stick with their training after new figures indicated four out of ten were dropping out.
Patterson said the biggest barrier for young or mature apprentices entering the mining industry was the low wage received during training.
She said apprentices had little financial support during their training, a problem made worse by the high pay unskilled mine workers were receiving.
“People can earn much more in an unskilled labouring job then they can during their apprenticeship,” she said.
“The cost of living for apprentices is very high and the direct result is that there is not a strong incentive for people to enter that training.”
Looking to the future Alexander said the labour market was expected to stay competitive for several years.
“The North American sector will come out of their financial difficulties over the next five years and they’ll be back in the market again,” he said.
“The global market is therefore going to be very competitive, and it’s going to be very difficult to find workers.”
But Franceschini said while more needed to be done mining companies had been some of the best in developing employment solutions.
“I think miners are ahead of most in the case of skills shortages,” he said.
The next important steps for businesses and the Government will be to move beyond the broad acknowledgements outlined above.
Specific targets need to be drawn up and delivered, and if Franceschini’s words are anything to go by, miners will be up for the task.