Mining in Australia – Engineer Shortage

mining in australiaUnprecedented demand for skilled labour

Australia is undergoing a new resources and mining boom, with the mining  industry spearheading the nation’s economic growth and recovery. In a large part this is driven by the insatiable demand for metal and raw materials coming out of developing nations such as India and China, which saw economic growth in the double digits. Despite a brighter future than the sector has seen in the last few years, there are some factors that are still hampering the industry.

Australian Mining Industry Issues

In the mining industry alone, as recently as March, 40 per cent of people saw the economy strengthening over the next six to 12 months, while half see it at the very least remaining static. This expectation of a growing economy has driven investment and created an unprecedented demand for skilled labour. 

But a serious challenge in the form of a skills shortage with no visible end, has cast a long shadow over the mining industry. In its latest annual survey, Hays states that “the demand for mining engineering and geology candidates has now reached acute levels across the country”. Increased exploration and accelerated projects with aggressive hiring activity will seriously reduce Australia’s candidate pool. Over the last 12 months, 44 per cent of companies reported a rise in operational staff levels.

“The expansion of existing mines and a number of new mines saw the requirement climb for experienced mine engineers across the country, both in underground and open pit.” On top of this, a construction boom is expected to ride on the back of mine infrastructure needs, such as road, rail, ports and buildings, and will also severely diminished the national pool of construction personnel. The forecast boom in the LNG industry, particularly in Queensland, is also expected to draw heavily upon existing talent.

Even just moves to restart operations that faltered during the global financial crisis and natural disasters have drawn down on numbers. Each state is seeing its own skills problems.

Australian Mining Overview by State

In Western Australia, there has been an increased demand for environmental specialists and maintenance staff; similarly Victoria is seeing a dearth in the numbers of surveyors, underground miners and geotechnical engineers. According to the survey, 68 per cent of respondents are aiming to increase their levels of permanent engineering staff.

Queensland has an increasing need for miners and maintenance crews as both coal and hard rock mines come back online in response to the unwavering demand for materials.

According to Hays, “in many states, interstate recruitment is now increasingly on the agenda, while companies are becoming more receptive to international applicants, particularly experienced mining engineers, geologists, geotechnical engineers and senior level strategic candidates”.

This interstate recruitment drive saw South Australia extol the virtues of the state and its operations, such as Olympic Dam, at Perth Airport and other regional airports in Western Australia. The survey goes on to say that in skills short areas, nearly two thirds of respondents would consider employing or sponsoring a qualified overseas candidate.

However, overall a major factor in drawing new recruits or skilled talent is salary. States such as Queensland and Western Australia have offered extremely highly competitive pay incentives to lure potential employees away from other states or countries. Wages in New South Wales’ coal sector are now starting to compete with those offered in Western Australia, which is adding to the skills crisis in the state.

In South Australia, salary levels are still lagging behind Western Australia and Queensland, but this in turn is offset by South Australia’s much lower cost of living, the proximity of work and projects to Adelaide and more attractive fly in fly out arrangements.

How the Mining Industry Attracts People

The high wages in the mining industry have actually skewed the median average wage across Australia. Next year across the mining and resources sector, around 64 per cent of companies are expected to increase salaries from between three to six per cent. “Benefits have also increased in response to the skills shortage and more employers are now paying out long service leave in order to secure candidates.” Another way that companies are attempting to attract recruits is by offering non-financial benefits.

Incentives such as flexible working hours (which 83 per cent of companies offer) and compressed working weeks are now common features across the industry. “Employers are also willing to match past benefits and offer greater flexibility in terms of hours, fly in fly out rosters and commencement date.” Almost 90 per cent of companies in the mining industry rate a work/life balance as having a major impact on their company’s brand within the market. “Candidates are also looking very hard at rosters and the quality of accommodation on offer, and this is a definite factor in their decision making,” the survey states.

The style of accommodation and practices has a massive impact on sites, with recent protests at Anglo American’s Moranbah North coal mine over plans for ‘hot bedding’ demonstrating the demand for, and reaction to, high quality accommodation. Despite many rival companies attempting to lure and recruit new staff with huge pay packets and incentives, the industry seems to be staying put, with only a third of companies noting an increase in the levels of staff turnover in the last twelve months.

While slightly more than half of the industry registered no rise or fall in staff turnover, 16 per cent actaully recorded a decrease in turnover. As the mining boom continues to gather steam, it will further fuel the race for talent from an increasingly overdrawn skills market, which is bound to reshape labour in the nation.

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