Skills strategy interview transcript

THE following is a transcript of an interview with Australian Mining editor Jamie Wade, Mining Industry Skill Centre (MISC) chief executive Derek Hunter and MISC manager of strategic development Jenny Neumann. The interview took place on 16 January 2008. The interview can be downloaded as an audio file from The Unearthed Report on Australian Mining.

JAMIE WADE: Current labour market trends of low unemployment, an ageing workforce and corresponding skill shortages are placing pressures on the mining industry’s ability to respond to increasing production demands. In response to these issues, the mining industry skills centre has launched a strategy with the aim of providing detailed solutions to benefit employees, companies and the industry. In this interview I spoke with Mining Industry Skill Centre Chief Executive, Derek Hunter, and Manager of Strategic Development, Jenny Neumann about the strategy. Derek, welcome once again to the Unearthed report on Australian mining and I understand we’re also joined today by Jenny Neumann who’s your Manager of Strategic Development there at the Mining Industry Skill Centre. Welcome to you both.


DEREK HUNTER: Thank you, Jamie.

JAMIE WADE: Now, your Centre has had a very exciting development of late by way of the announcement of a skills strategy which is said to be revolutionary in the way it will change Australian mining industry approaches to training in the workforce planning for the future. What is this strategy? What’s its aim and what makes it revolutionary?

DEREK HUNTER: I think maybe just to start off and to centre our discussion, Jamie, clearly we are in Queensland here, the Centre for Excellence for all matters relating to training. So effectively our purpose is to achieve a sustainable workforce for the mining industry. Aligned to the industry’s needs. So we have actually worked through a range of strategies to actually get to the point of having the skill strategy developed and I think you already know about the heartbeat strategy which is about identifying skills shortage by skill set.

And the way in which we are projecting that into a five-year future to look at shortfall. Now that obviously links directly into, if you like, the building foundation of developing a skill strategy. So that was a starting point. The skill strategy however has been fundamentally developed through engagement with the industry and often what we see with strategies like this is that they are done by an expert body or individual as a report and then dropped on the industry. And the question then is, is it going to be picked up. In terms of our role as a centre of excellence, we not only have carried through the initial research work with the industry of what its problems are and what it sees as it’s challenges going forward in training, we’ve now developed the actual strategy in response to that with the industry. And we will carry the third stage which is the implementation of that strategy. So over the next 18 months, we will be working with the industry to implement that strategy. So effectively you’ve got a holistic approach to dealing with a strategy for the industry. The other factor that comes out of that is that while the research has been done here in Queensland for the strategy, the bottom line is that the industry in Queensland is basically similar to the industry throughout Australia. So effectively we will be encouraging the various Chambers of Mines and Energy to have a look at how this might be utilised within their states and territories.

JAMIE WADE: Now you’ve made a fairly bold claim about the strategies as being revolutionary. I mean what makes it revolutionary?

JENNY NEUMANN: Oh well Jamie, I think there’s a few things. Basically the first one that it is holistic and integrated in its approach and by that, it’s not a report based on one aspect of the skilling system or training or education. It aims to look at the mining workforce as a whole and look at all of the processes and planning involved in developing a workforce and ensuring a sustainable workforce. So that’s probably one of the first things. The second is that it is a whole of industry approach so a lot of work’s gone into engaging industry and its stakeholders in this work to help ensure that strategies have that industry-wide push. At the moment what you’ll find is a lot of companies working on their own to try and solve their skilling issues and any approaches or initiatives are much more powerful if they’ve got that whole of industry push behind them. And I guess, thirdly, it’s just that a lot of reports get written and to some extent people get a bit, I guess, jaded by seeing report after report, but not necessarily outcomes associated with that. And this report has been written in such a way that it clearly shows how we’re going to implement it and what the timelines are and the goals are so that there are genuine outcomes associated with the work. I think that’s very important for the mining industry.

JAMIE WADE: We’ll come back to the strategy in a moment. I’m just wondering what are the current training and workforce issues facing the Australian mining industry? I mean it’s obviously been an issue for some time now. What’s happened I guess in the last 12 months and what are the hotspots if you like in terms of those training and workforce issues faced by the industry?

DEREK HUNTER: Well I think if we look at the picture holistically, what we’re seeing in the industry is an industry that has had a past of boom-bust so that you don’t actually have long term planning and development for the industry. What we have, now have, is an industry that is in sustained growth. I mean this would be the most significant sustained growth in the resources industry that we have yet seen and most experts would suggest it’s going to run for certainly another 10 or 12 years. That’s come at a time where we have obviously compounding skill shortages. Now those two obviously don’t match and what we are seeing is that we are having significant skill shortages. Now there are obviously discussions about whether it’s labour shortage or skills shortage. Our view is very clear that it is skill shortage. What we see as a result of that is that the mines, or mining in general, the resources industry is trying the traditional approach of buying skills and the cost of skills is getting higher. So what is happening is we’re getting high levels of attrition in the industry as people move from one employer to another, being attracted by ever higher wages. The impact that has on training and the workforce is absolutely dramatic, not to mention the actual cost to the industry. You therefore get high attrition, you’re getting a mismatch of skills required for roles as we desperately scrabble to get people in and fit them in. And we’re also getting rapid promotion as well which is not necessarily the most appropriate approach to developing a sustainable workforce. So with that sort of mix, you get a complete lack of integrated approaches to planning for training and education. And that fundamentally is where we need to actually move to get a holistic industry-wide integrated approach. And to do that we obviously have to create the right sorts of relationships and have an understanding that we can’t buy our way out of this problem. You know, if we’re actually serious, and we need to do it as an industry because we know for example some of the professional roles are unsustainable in the next eight to 10 years. If you look at the issue of, say, surveyors as an example, we know you cannot provide enough surveyors for the industry. So effectively what we need to look at is paraprofessional roles that actually deal with sections of the surveyor’s role. Now we know that some individual mining companies are working on that with individual training providers, universities and so on. But effectively there needs to be a whole of industry approach to that. That is fundamentally where we believe we can bring about that sense of revolution in investing in the future of the industry.

JAMIE WADE: So let’s go back to the skills strategy. What’s some of the detail of, you know, in terms of the strategic solutions within that strategy? What are the goals and the action plans and what’s your plan of attack in terms of implementing that strategy?

JENNY NEUMANN: The skills strategy is divided into two main sections: workforce planning and workforce development. So workforce planning is really about ensuring that we can attract the appropriate numbers of people to the mining industry and that we can retain them. So to achieve that, there’s a couple of different key projects that we’re looking at that come out of the skills strategy or that are linked to the skills strategy. The first one is the project Derek referred to earlier, the heartbeat project which is about firstly identifying what sort of numbers of people we’re talking about that we may have in terms of shortfall for particular skill sets. But then it’s more than that. It’s actually looking at career pathways for all the job roles that are relevant for the mining industry. At the moment, when people ask you the question, how do I get a job in the mining industry, there isn’t an easy answer. If they want one of the key professional roles or one of the trade roles, it’s a little bit easier. But as soon as you start looking at some of the operator roles on site, it’s actually very difficult to give a straightforward answer to people, which people find frustrating. There are a lot of people that are interested in getting into the mining industry to work but don’t really know how to go about it. So one of the key projects is to look at every single job role in the mining industry and to map out what the career pathway is, to look at the entry points that currently exist into those careers for people and then also how we can potentially maximise those entry pathways. So if you consider the example Derek gave earlier for surveyors, you could say to people, well, you can enter from university qualification as a fully qualified surveyor, or as a para-professional. Or you could enter from TAFE or you could enter from a like industry with surveying experience and so on. It’s about mapping that out and making it clear for people. So that’s workforce planning and I guess the other section or the other main area is about workforce development which is about ensuring that the people you have working on a mine site have the skills and knowledge needed to work productively and safely. So that includes quite a range of different, I guess, subprojects including working with education and training providers and the industry to ensure that training programs and education programs are delivering the skills and knowledge needed. And at the moment those relationships aren’t firmly developed. So we see a key role for the mining industry skill centre in helping those to be established. Secondly also working with mine sites to help them develop the most efficient training systems possible to upskill people. And it’s also about looking to the future. I mean as we talk about skill shortage and coping with skill shortage, we can cope by maximising our skill supply, but also by altering demand and using technology helps us to alter our demand for workers. But technology brings … sorry, using technology requires, in many cases, brand new skill sets. Have to make sure that education and training providers and programmes and courses are going to develop those particular skills and technology in the future workforce.

JAMIE WADE: So what advice can you offer a mine operator who’s struggling to attract, train and retain skilled personnel?

DEREK HUNTER: Yeah, it’s a particularly difficult area and I think one that’s important because we do have a significant number of small mine operators. I mean they are operating in a highly competitive environment now and it’s going to get more competitive. So they really do need to focus on leading practice. And part of that is about working with existing employees and understanding the way in which to retain those and to develop their skills. It’s also about the relationships with the surrounding community and the schools. They’ve got to become involved as a part of an ongoing employment strategy for the future. So they’ve got to be part of the community in which they’re set. They’ve got to become involved in the wider industry-wide initiatives so they’ve got to advise … obtain advice. They’ve got to seek support. They can’t afford to simply be isolated and hope that it will happen. It won’t. It’s no longer that type of industry. So we have to see that the smaller mine operators have to come in to a community of practice for the resources industry and seek the support from organisations like ourselves to actually assist them to do that.

JAMIE WADE: Which leads me to ask what help’s available to a mine operator who’s obviously struggling with those pressures of attracting training and retaining skilled personnel?

DEREK HUNTER: Well I think obviously the work that we do and we’re starting to do this work across Australia, is that we have a range of programmes to assist mining companies. And at the trainer level we run a series of networks, for example. So we run quarterly network meetings. We can assist in a wide range of areas in terms of the types of implementation program that we’re looking at for the skills strategy. So we can give advice on the whole question around apprenticeships, the availability of various programmes. We also distribute significant training funds on behalf of the state government here so that we actually help target how to assist. And we do have a small mines approach to that particular targeting of funding. So I think that in terms of Queensland certainly, and some of the other states that we’re beginning to operate in, it is a one stop shop. They’re welcome to come and talk to us about these matters and we’ll certainly help direct them as appropriate.

JAMIE WADE: And just finally what key message or key messages would you like to convey to the mining industry about the skills strategy and just generally about training and workforce planning for the future?

DEREK HUNTER: I think our number one key message for the industry is that skills shortages are a reality. And I think it’s very sad that we still have to actually highlight that because the industry itself has in many ways hidden from that reality. So skills shortages are a reality. I think the other key message, we need to alter our demand for skills and expand our supply in order to meet production targets safely and efficiently. And hope to fill simply by paying more or bringing from overseas, we have to really understand the demand for skills. We’ve got to expand our supply so that you have a long term strategy. In terms of what we’re presenting, the skills strategy presented by the mining industry skills centre is, we believe, the first holistic and integrated approach to skilling issues for the mining industry and if people are prepared to work with it and the industry certainly is prepared to work with it, we believe that it will support the industry in what are highly competitive times in terms of attracting, training and retaining quality personnel.

JAMIE WADE: Mining Industry Skills Centre Chief Executive, Derek Hunter, and Manager Strategic Development, Jenny Neumann. Thanks very much for your time today, for sharing your thoughts about the skills strategy on the Unearthed Report on Australian Mining.


DEREK HUNTER: Thank you.

End of interview

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