Skills shortage: Australia facing critical decline of new mining engineers
Summary: The lure of high-paying wages no longer seems to be attracting students to Australia's mining industry, which is becoming increasingly concerned about a new skills shortage.....
The Minerals Council of Australia says close to 300 mining engineers were graduating every year during the resources investment boom.
Based on current enrolments at eight mining universities across the country, that should fall to around 50 graduates in four years' time.
That is despite the fact most mining engineering graduates walk into jobs paying more than $100,000 a year.
End of investment boom saw enrolments fall away
Gavin Lind from the Minerals Council of Australia said enrolments have been in decline since 2012 when commodity prices for iron ore and coal started coming off the boil.
"It's a very real issue," he said.
"Although it might not feel so pressing this year or next year, when we still expect mining engineering graduates across Australia to number around 200, that is a legacy of enrolments from a few years ago.
"When we look in to the future four years from now we will have less than 50 mining engineering graduates across Australia available to the industry, so it's a pressing and very real concern."
Dramatic fall hits University of NSW hardest
Commodity prices may have rebounded, but enrolments are still lagging.
Just six students are enrolled to study mining engineering at the University of New South Wales this year, down from 120 enrolments four years ago.
PHOTO: A haul truck emerges from the Nova underground mine in Western Australia. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Jarrod Lucas)
The talent pool for mining engineers may be drying up, but there are also concerns about the number of students graduating as metallurgists, geologists and surveyors.
"In part it's the negative sentiment towards the industry, particularly in metropolitan areas, which is affecting students' ability to see a long-term future for themselves in mining," Mr Lind said.
"That surprises us because mining is such an exciting game, particularly when you consider the new types of technology through automation and robotics and artificial intelligence.
"We're going to need very clever people to help us in our industry."
Fertile ground for fresh graduates
WA School of Mines graduate Trent Nayler said his interest in the industry was sparked by a Year 12 school camp hosted by Curtin University, which included a tour of a mine site.
Mr Nayler said all his classmates had walked into jobs after finishing university last year, saying the perception there is a mining downturn is incorrect.
PHOTO: WA School of Mines graduate Trent Nayler is working at a nickel-copper mine in Western Australia.(ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Jarrod Lucas)
The young mining engineer is working at the Nova nickel-copper mine on the edge of the Nullarbor and wants to earn his mine manager's ticket before potentially heading overseas to get more industry experience.
"When I was applying for jobs in the middle of last year there was heaps of companies advertising for mining engineers," he said.
"Even now if you look on SEEK or any job advertising websites you see the number of ads for mining engineers and operators, anything related to mining, there's tonnes of jobs around.
"Personally, I think iron ore influences the perception of mining, but there's a lot more to mining than just iron ore.
"There's gold and a lot of other commodities in WA."
East fighting West for best and brightest
Raleigh Finlayson, the managing director of one of WA's biggest gold miners Saracen Mineral Holdings and president of the WA School of Mines' Alumni Association, said miners are already struggling to attract skilled workers.
Mr Finlayson said the situation needs to be addressed now before it derails future projects.
PHOTO: Mining engineer Raleigh Finlayson is concerned the resources sector is not prepared for a new skills shortage.(ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Jarrod Lucas)
"In three to four years' time I think the numbers are peeling off, we're talking about halving again, coming into a period where the industry is starting to boom," he said.
"There is a cyclical nature that we do go through every boom and bust cycle, but I think this is a little bit unprecedented in the context of what's happening on the east coast.
"Civil projects like the Sydney airport and tunnels are pulling some of our resources from WA over there, so we've got an issue which we need to address very, very quickly."
Miners will look overseas if talent pool dries up
The Minerals Council of Australia wants the Federal Government to consider offering incentives to attract people to subjects like mining engineering because of its 'national significance'.
Further reducing the talent pool is the fact mining engineers have been removed from the short-term list of positions for the temporary skill shortage visa, which replaced the 457 visa.
Mining engineers are still on the medium-term lists for skilled migrant positions.
Mr Lind is concerned the skills shortage could drive up wages to unsustainable levels like the mining boom, forcing miners to employ overseas workers or interstate workers on a fly-in, fly-out basis.
"Our industry will always look locally first but if those skills simply aren't there, the industry won't stop and we will need to find those skills from somewhere else," he said.
Collaborative approach needed to solve skills shortage
WA School of Mines director, Professor Sam Spearing, said the government must do more to attract students to the mining industry.
He said other career pathways, including potential post-graduate studies for civil or mechanical engineering graduates, must be offered.
PHOTO: Professor Sam Spearing (centre) says enrolments at the 115-year-old Kalgoorlie institution are considerably lower than past years. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Jarrod Lucas)
"There will be a skills shortage and we do need to try and address that," Professor Spearing said.
"It's going to need a coordinated approach by the government, industry and the tertiary sector, which includes the TAFEs.
"We just can't get people, the best and the brightest, into the mining industry, and yet it's a very well-paid industry, it's a very challenging industry.
"There's far more jobs than we've got people to fill and that's across every level - from the operator to the instrumentation technician, to drill operators, to engineers, to tradies - there's just a general shortage of people in the mining industry."