For Trent Nayler, notions of any lack of opportunity within Australia’s mining sector as a result of the recent downturn are incorrect.
Nayler, who graduated from the WA School of Mines last year (according to an ABC report), now works as a mine engineer at the Nova nickel-copper mine on the edge of the Nullarbor, and wants to earn his manager’s certification before heading overseas.
When applying for jobs last year, he says there were ‘heaps of companies’ advertising for mine engineers.
For many companies within the mining and mine services sector, however, graduates such as Nayler are too few and far between.
Around Australia, the resources sector employs around 220,000 Australians (ABS data). According to the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), the sector is the nation’s biggest employer of mining engineers (10,076), geologists and geophysicists (7,163), industrial, mechanical and production engineers (10,195), production managers (7,424) and metallurgists and physicists (2,538). The sector is also undergoing a technological transformation which will require skills in areas such artificial intelligence, automation, data analytics and more.
Yet trainee numbers are drying up. In 2013, around 380 new students enrolled in mining engineering programs at the five universities which offer mining courses. This year, just 50 enrolled. This is raising concerns about a repeat of mining course shutdowns, as happened in the 1990s.
Primarily, this is a reflection of the recent downturn in mining activity (which is now recovering). Nevertheless, recent research suggests that the sector also faces challenges in other areas. Released in May, a study of 1,061 senior high school students by youth research agency YouthInsight found that awareness about opportunities available in mining and mining related industries was low.
According to the research, almost six in 10 (59 per cent) young people know nothing at all about mining careers. Furthermore, only 30 per cent of students have any interest in a career in the mining or the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sectors.
Steve Durkin, chief executive officer of Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, said there is a lack of awareness about mining and the opportunities it provides.
Many young people also fail to see the relevance of mining in their everyday lives, he adds.
“Young people are shown to perceive the mining sector as having a very low level of personal relevance,” Durkin said. “The mining industry is such an integral part of Australia’s culture, history and economy and will continue to be so well in to the future, providing substances that are used in a whole host of everyday items.
“The study shows that young students do not automatically associate their mobile phones, cars, or modern medicine, with the use of minerals and therefore while they understand the important role mining plays on a national scale, they struggle to see the positive impact and direct relevance the mining sector has on their lives.”
Minerals Council of Australia director – workforce Gavin Lind describes a lack of awareness about the industry.
“The MCA’s research and our own understanding of the industry has shown that there is much more the Australian mining industry can do to raise awareness of the sector’s and opportunities amongst young Australians,” he said.
“Whilst commodity price fluctuations and incorrect perceptions about the nature of the work and the industry may discourage a small number of people from seeking a career in the mining industry, the biggest barrier is simply a lack of knowledge about the sector.”
Professor Peter Dowd, a Professor of Mining within the School of Civil Environmental and Mining Engineering, offers a different explanation about the current drop in enrolments.
According to Dowd, a correlation exists between the industry’s perceived fortunes and enrolment numbers in mining courses. Drawing on historical data showing the relationship between metal and mineral prices and mining industry graduates over the past 50 years, Dowd says graduate numbers for mining engineering courses follow changes in mine industry conditions with a time lag of approximately four years (since full-time mining courses generally last four years, this means the effect of mining industry conditions on new enrolment numbers is almost immediate.)
Understandably, Dowd says, students and parents think carefully about employment prospects when choosing careers. Where stories about layoffs emerge, the effect on enrolments is swift.
Up until about 2000/2001, Dowd said the mining cycle would typically last around seven years. That cyclical change in jobs, he said, was out of kilter with the cyclical graduation of students because of the time taken to complete a course. As a result, students would often graduate at the bottom of the cycle where there were fewer opportunities. That would feed back into schools and families, and the number of enrolments would almost dry up overnight.
Whilst other issues such as perceptions about mining being an old economy and dirty industry were at play, Dowd says these are less impactful than the cyclical issue. If sustained, he says the low student numbers could cause mining course shutdowns.
“From 2000 onwards, we had a continuous increase until about 2012/13 (the height of the resource construction boom),” Dowd said.
“Now, because of a decline in mining activity – it’s now picked up but perception takes a long time to be rectified – the five mining schools in Australia are taking single digit numbers.
“The cycles in the mining industry are much more significant than in any other industry.”
According to Lind, a number of perceptions about mining are inaccurate.
Perceptions about mining employment being low-paid and insecure, he said, were wrong. In fact, he said 98 per cent of new mining jobs are full-time, and mining has the highest wages of any Australian industry.
Also inaccurate, Lind said, were ideas about mining being an old industry which does not innovate. In fact, he says the resources sector forks out almost $3 billion on research and development every year – accounting for almost one in every six dollars of R&D spending nationwide.
On a related note, Lindt said ideas about mining not belonging in the ‘new economy’ were misplaced. New uses for mining products, he said, are emerging all the time. Consider gold – where Australia is the world’s second largest producer and largest exporter. Over the next three decades, use of the metal in antibiotics, smartphones and electronic vehicles will deliver massive new opportunities for gold producers.
Finally, any ideas about the sector being environmentally unsound or unfriendly to women were outdated, Lindt said. Whilst female participation rates remain low (ABS data indicates that men outnumber women across the mining workforce by more than five to one), the industry is committed to gender diversity and recognising the achievements of women. The sector also had a strong record as a responsible environmental manager including mine rehabilitation and reducing water use. Mining was the third biggest employer of environmental scientists, employing 9,945 either directly or indirectly.
In fact, Lind says the resource sector has a good story to tell. An average full-time weekly pay of $2,678.65 was higher than the average across all industries to the tune of 65 per cent, he said. With more than 60 per cent of mining jobs in Australia existing in regional areas, the sector offered a chance to work across a diversity of locations.
With innovative technology such as automation, drones, robotics and artificial intelligence changing the face of the modern mining sector, opportunities for skilled and technologically-literate experts will arise, he said. This includes operators, engineers, environmental scientists and geologists.
Mining operations will also be more data-driven, providing opportunities for those with programming and analytical skills. The future minerals workforce will have skills including automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and data analytics.
Going forward, Durkin says the industry needs to engage with students. This requires working with universities and sending people out from industry to tertiary institutions and schools.
Lind agrees. He says industry needs to make young people and parents aware of the opportunities which mining offers.
Reforms to reverse declines in student participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are also needed. These include ensuring a focus on skills formation, the development of foundational skills and introducing incentives to focus on student learning outcomes.
Flexible working arrangements are necessary as well.
The Australian mining industry offers promising opportunities.
To attract the next generation, the industry must work harder to promote itself.