The announcement of major iron ore projects by the big three miners has been heralded by many as a clear indication the mining industry is back in gear.

Add to this the battery minerals potential in Australia and the news Adani Group’s Carmichael mine might finally get through the Queensland Government’s environmental approvals, and there is lots to get excited about.

Those amongst us jumping highest for joy will be job seekers, especially those involved in the construction industry.

Simply taking the construction of Rio Tinto’s Koodaideri, BHP’s South Flank and Fortescue Metals Group’s Eliwana mines into account, Chamber of Minerals and Energy Western Australia (CMEWA) Director of Policy and Advocacy Rob Carruthers expected the number of jobs created to peak at around 15,000 towards mid-to-late 2020.

“They are effectively construction jobs that were not in the market two to three years ago, which is a big vote of confidence, and the strong iron ore price definitely helps,” he said.

AMEC CEO Warren Pearce said this potential influx of jobs came off the back of, and did not include, an additional 10,000 people employed in the mining sector in Western Australia since the 2018 State Budget, reflecting significant growth in a short period.

While the number of job vacancies opening up in the mining industry and related fields is positive in one sense, both Mr Pearce and Mr Carruthers highlighted a potential shortfall in the amount of qualified workers available to be part of the impending ramp-up.

They said this could be partially attributed to a negative perception of the mining industry and the longevity of jobs, and competition from other industries.

“There’s a great level of concern about whether we will be able to attract construction workers into these roles, particularly with the really strong construction sector on public and private projects in Sydney and Melbourne that are going to be competing and, we think, holding a lot of those employees,” Mr Pearce said.

Mr Carruthers said about 35 per cent of the workforce came from interstate or overseas during the last mining boom.

“This time around it feels like – and this is based on feedback from our members – we’re going to have to source a lot more of that labour and talent from the WA pool,” he said.

While this is not necessarily a bad thing for job seekers in WA, trying to plug a 35 per cent hole in the workforce is a big ask, especially with the removal of the 457 Temporary Work (skilled) visa and the introduction of the Temporary Skill Shortage visa constraining the ability to source talent from overseas.

This situation is further exacerbated by the mining industry’s reputation off the back of the last mining boom, according to Mr Pearce. He said people’s experience at the end of the boom might work against the mining industry this time around.

“At the end of the boom when the construction activity ended we lost a lot of people from our industry, especially in that period between 2003 and 2012,” he said.

“They have subsequently gone into other professions in other industries and now they are 10 years older and likely to have families and other things that might make them consider whether they want to come back into our industry.

“It may well depend on what our industry is paying, but I think we have a case where we have to persuade people our industry is going to be very strong and there are long-term and permanent opportunities.”

Future focus

In addition to the potential skills and employee shortfall in the construction of mines, there are some issues from an operational standpoint. As was showcased in the April edition of National Mining Chronicle, the number of mining engineering students enrolled in undergraduate degrees nationally in 2018 was just 43, dramatically less than the 348 enrolled in 2012.

These figures reflected Mr Carruthers’ observations of where skills shortages were occurring.

“We are not seeing skills shortages across the board,” he said. “There’s probably some specific roles in the project space – project engineers and mining engineers in particular – as well as diesel and mechanical fitters, where we are seeing some of the pinch points at the moment.”

Mr Pearce added geologists and mineral exploration drillers to the list of jobs the mining industry was struggling to find skilled workers for.

“We have been struggling, at least for the past two years, to recruit specialised professions,” he said. “It is very difficult to see where we’re going to be able to attract those locally, and it really does create a quite significant need for a skilled migration program to allow companies to attract overseas employees.”

Mr Pearce said contrary to the belief of some, looking overseas for workers was not a bad thing for the industry to do and the previous 457 Temporary Work (skilled) visa system was a good example of that.

“The biggest problem is skilled migration has got completely wrapped up in immigration in the minds of Australians, Australian politicians and Australian governments,” he said. “Consequently there is zero appetite to be seen to be opening up that system and to be accused of bypassing opportunities for Australians.

“What our association is very committed to, and our members are too, is skilled migration should be a policy of last resort. You want Australians to have the opportunity to fill those roles, and after those opportunities have been presented and its clear we’re not able to attract Australians into those roles or there hasn’t been a sufficient skill base that can be used to fill that gap, then you should be able to move through and look for people through a skilled migration program.

“If you go back to the last boom, we found we needed to attract people to those roles. The 457 program acted exactly as it was intended – workers came for the period of time we needed those roles and they left and returned back to their own countries following the boom.”

By way of contrast to this point of view, CFMEU National Research Director Peter Colley said seeking to rely on overseas workers indicated a company had forgotten how to create desirable jobs.

“The mining industry has a poor record on giving people their first qualification,” Mr Colley said. “It does a bit better on upskilling, but there is a tendency to poach skilled workers from other industries and now they want to poach workers from developing countries.”

Added to this, Mr Colley said the mining industry had managed to recover the majority of the jobs lost at the end of the resources boom in 2012, but the nature of the work was changing.

“A lot of the current wave of new technical jobs are mainly about bedding down automation and remote operations,” he said. “Once those things become routine, there will be less technical jobs on minesites. At the moment we are not seeing large jobs declines due to automation and remote operations, but we expect to see a gradual decline.

“The mining industry sees automation and remote operations as an imperative to remain competitive and highly pro table, but it also drives mines to become larger and more capital-intensive.

“As the jobs go, the industry becomes more vulnerable to government and other attacks, as there are less flow-on benefits from mining. Mineworkers spend their wages in their communities; automated trucks don’t. That leaves taxes and royalties as the main contribution that mining makes to the host country.”