Exclusive, Rhianna Mitchel

THE WA mining industry has come together in a “call to arms” after successive cohorts of school leavers ignored the industry on which the State has built its reputation.

A big decline in mining-related university enrolments has led to fears of a skills shortage at a time of recovering iron ore prices, a strong gold market, growth in automation and robotics and a forecast lithium boom.

A task force comprising the Chamber of Minerals and Energy, universities, schools and governments has been set up to address the “critical issue” which industry has warned could affect WA’s productivity and global competitiveness.

Mining executives said the industry had “dropped the ball” when it came to promoting mining careers and have pledged to win over the hearts and minds of teenagers

University enrolments have fallen as much as 80 per cent in five years in some mining degrees.

The Minerals Council of Australia predicts that by 2020 the number of mining engineering graduates will fall 81 per cent.

Saracen Mineral Holdings managing director Raleigh Finlayson, who is president of the WA School of Mines Alumni, heads the task force. “We are trying to get collaboration between industries that wouldn’t always collaborate, but one thing we have in common is the need for future skill in the workforce,” he said.

“We’re all in this together. We’re moving from it being an issue, to an opportunity.”

Mr Finlayson said artificial intelligence, automation and robotics were leading to new careers.

Processing of lithium and other battery minerals was expected to create thousands of highly skilled, highly paid jobs.

A State Government task force was set up recently to capitalise on the lithium expansion, which has more than $3 billion worth of projects in the pipeline.

It comes as the Pilbara’s three biggest iron ore miners, Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue Metals Group, plan to build $9.5 billion worth of new mines in the next four years.

Mr Finlayson said research suggested the cyclical nature of mining was deterring school leavers. The task force would focus on ways to attract WA’s best and brightest students to mining, and to prepare for and adapt to commodity price cycles.

Curtin University will open a technical school on St Georges Terrace next year to offer “bite-sized” modules and courses to re-skill workers and meet demand from new areas.

Curtin Vice-Chancellor Deborah Terry said it was a “big shift”. The school would teach subjects such as data analytics and digital courses to cater to the “new face” of mining.

“We need to offer different study opportunities, and different sorts of courses in locations and at times that suit employees,” she said.

Mining-related enrolments at Curtin, including at its WA School of Mines in Kalgoorlie, fell 15 per cent in 12 months.

The trend is most evident in mining engineering, in which enrolments have plummeted 83 per cent since 2013.

Peter Bradford, managing director of WA miner Independence Group, said the industry needed to do a “far better job” of ensuring there was a pipeline of workers.

“As an industry, how can we excite more high school kids to think about a career in mining and put away the baggage in their minds about boom-and-bust cycles,” he said.

“People talk about working for Google and Facebook as sexy. A career in mining can be a damn sight sexier than that.”

David Southam, executive director of nickel producer Western Areas, said companies were investing in cutting-edge technology and research and development.

“We need to get the message out that it’s a really interesting place to work,” he said. “We’ve probably taken our eye off the ball as an industry.

“(Graduates) are in demand. They get paid well and can travel globally.”

Jarvas Croome, chief executive of mining equipment supplier WesTrac, said WA was developing innovations that would be used globally.

“We’re looking at auto rail, automated trucks, underground automation, data analytics and remote control drilling,” he said.

Professor Daryoush Habibi, Edith Cowan University executive dean of engineering, said that over the past six years about 70 per cent of graduate engineers in WA found jobs four months after graduating.

Victoria Arrowsmith and Breanna Cameron both received scholarships from the WA Mining Club.
Victoria Arrowsmith and Breanna Cameron both received scholarships from the WA Mining Club.Picture: Ian Munro
Anis McGowan was fed up with the negative perception of the industry she loves, so she decided to do something about it.

The 22-year-old mining engineering student at Curtin University’s WA School of Mines in Kalgoorlie helped start Our Mining Future, a group that promotes mining courses and careers to young people.

“There is a really huge issue with there not being enough students,” Ms McGowan said. “There is such a negative view on mining and lots of people don’t see … how it’s relevant to them, or they don’t think it’s a reliable and sustainable industry because of its cyclical nature.

“But it’s so diverse. You can travel and work in so many different areas. Kalgoorlie is an amazing place to go to uni and you become a family because it’s a small campus.”

The WA Mining Club is also taking action by offering nine $10,000 scholarships.

Victoria Arrowsmith and Breanna Cameron, last year’s scholarship winners, said work was needed to boost enrolments. Ms Arrowsmith is a metallurgist for Novo Resources. “I’ve had the most amazing opportunities to develop and grow,” she said.

ECU had introduced two major engineering disciplines since 2012, which Professor Habibi said was evidence of its long-term vision.

“ECU has built up its capacity to be able to rapidly ramp up the student intake into its engineering programs to cater for the growth of the engineering workforce in mining, oil and gas, and other sectors of economy in WA,” he said.

A UWA spokesman said it was expected that enrolments would rebound as the outlook for WA’s mining industry improved. UWA offered incentive schemes such as scholarships to attract students to enrol in engineering

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.