The mining sector is lucrative and influential and is crying out for students, write Mark Hoffman and Paul Hagan
12:00AM AUGUST 29, 2018 The Australian

A sharp drop in students enrolling in mining engineering — when resources are
roaring back — has triggered alarm in parts of the minerals industry and there have
been calls for governments to “do something”.

But it’s up to the industry and universities, not governments, to create the best
graduates, promote the sector and ensure long-term career opportunities.

We are seeing a return to solid growth in resources: in Australia, resources and energy
values have grown by 18 per cent in the past year to a record $226 billion, according to
the Office of the Chief Economist.

It forecasts strong prices to drive nickel export earnings 22 per cent higher into next
year; aluminium prices are already at multi-year highs; and demand for gold will
perform well into 2020.

More robust global demand than expected is pushing up metals prices across the board.
Australia’s resources exports are about 180 per cent higher in US dollar terms now
than in 2000, which is why the Australian Securities Exchange’s index for metals and
mining companies is now at its highest level since March 2012.

As you’d expect, this increased activity is driving the demand for mining engineers,
who are essential in everyday operations.

12:00AM AUGUST 29, 2018 • H 4 COMMENTS
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They help determine investment decisions and evaluate mineral deposits; design openpit,
underground mines and infrastructure; manage mining staff, equipment and
production; and are responsible for safety.

Importantly, they also are key players in environmental stewardship: while minerals
provide the raw materials in everything we need and use in modern society, our society
also expects that mines should designed, built and operated with ever decreasing
environmental impact.

Mining is exceptionally cyclic, and the peaks and troughs can be dramatic.
Whenever there’s a downturn in commodity prices, companies reduce costs, which can
include scholarships, mining graduate positions and student vacation employment. In
the last downturn, some were so zealous in cost-cutting they now are feeling the effects
in terms of short ages of mining engineers.

But mining engineers don’t grow on trees. They take at least four years to educate.
When there is a lack of industry support for training and stable employment
opportunities during lean times, students abandon mining engineering degrees
midstream or graduate with no job.

With the next upswing in the cycle already under way, there are again too few students
in the pipeline, while qualified mining engineers may have moved into other
engineering roles or overseas.

Currently, 96 per cent of mining engineering graduates are in full-time employment
with a median salary of $95,000, well above the next best, electrical engineering, at 86
per cent and a median salary of $65,000.

Across Australia, total enrolments spanning the four major universities educating
mining engineers — the University of NSW, Curtin University, the University of
Queensland and the University of Adelaide — has plunged 88 per cent, from 265
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students in 2013 to 32 this year. With falling student intake and rising demand, a crisis
is fast approaching.

A sustained effort is needed to attract and retain students in the mining engineering
pipeline, and this requires collaboration between the industry and universities. One
initiative between the NSW Minerals Council and UNSW is the NSW Minerals
Industry-UNSW Education Trust, which has created a new $1.18 million program
offering 25 scholarships of $48,000 across four years.
Restricting the talent pool even further, the federal government changed post-study
work visa options for foreign students studying mining engineering at Australian
universities in 2016.

Within a week of the change, a large fraction of international student applications for
mining programs nationally were with drawn; they would have now been nearing
graduation and would be preparing to enter the workforce. The visa changes were
reversed a year later but the students are only now returning.

We need resource companies, the minerals industry at large and universities to help
convince young people (and their parents) of the sector’s value and ongoing
importance to Australian society, by reminding them it’s a $174 billion enterprise that
accounts for 60 per cent of Australian exports; or that producing a smartphone requires
more than 50 valuable elements such as copper, aluminium, gold, silver, silica and
lithium, which are all mined in Australia.

Australian mining education benefits from a unique and innovative relationship
between the industry and the aforementioned universities, known as Mining –
Engineering Australia.

Among the collaborative initiatives MEA has developed is an educational game for
virtual reality headsets, one of the tools MEA uses in workshops held for high school
students to raise the awareness of the minerals supply chain.

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We need more mining companies to join education initiatives such as these, and
commit to industrial training, without which university students cannot graduate as
effective mining engineers. Skills are hard won and easily lost; these need to be seen
by the industry as a long-term investment essential to its future pipeline of capacity.
And we need government to realise that, when there is booming global demand for
engineers and 58 per cent of Australia’s engineers are migrants, restricting
international students from becoming productive members of Australia’s resource
industry workforce is a very backward step.

Author: WASMA

The history of the Western Australian School of Mines Alumni (WASMA) reflects the ups and downs of the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) and the role it has played in supporting graduates in a range of activities and events. It also describes the important role that graduates have played in ensuring WASM remains in Kalgoorlie. Learn more.