Are we getting enough ‘T’ into our geoscientists?

  • By Dale Sims FAusIMM(CP)

This is a summary article of a paper presented at the 11th International Mining Geology Conference.

‘T-shaped’ professionals have both a deep understanding of their core profession/specialisation areas – the vertical beam of the ‘T’ – and a broad appreciation of the lateral topics and issues that relate to the upstream and downstream interactions of their roles and responsibilities – the horizontal beam of the ‘T’.

In geoscience, ‘T-shaped’ people are professionals who have understanding that spans lateral disciplines so their core expertise can be used to optimise value chain outcomes from research and exploration to final market. Development of lateral professional knowledge is important, particularly early career exposure to interdisciplinary interaction that has the potential to be of significant benefit building the foundational understanding to underpin a productive career.

An online survey was recently conducted with invitations to participate sent via both the AIG and AusIMM Geoscience Society email lists. The survey aimed to investigate the interaction of geoscientists with lateral and often non-geoscience disciplines during the first five years of their career experience thereby developing an assessment of ‘T-shaped’ skills development in early career geoscientists through time. The data was collected to allow development of a paper which was presented at the joint AIG/AusIMM 11th International Mining Geologists’ Conference in Perth in late November 2019 (Sims, Pocoe and Puha, 2019).

The 418 respondents to the survey spanned a 60-year window of professional experience with around 70 per cent of respondents experiencing career commencement within the last 35 years (Figure 1). The troughs and peaks in respondent numbers broadly reflect the booms and busts in the industry over that time.

Figure 1. Starting year with industry (numbers of respondents).

As well as asking the ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘who for’ and ‘when’ aspects of graduate experience, the survey asked respondents to quantify their early career interdisciplinary interactions in terms of specific types of lateral disciplines/professionals as well as the frequency of those interactions on a daily-weekly-monthly-yearly-NA scale.

In terms of age, geographic spread, industry sector and employer grouping the survey is considered a reasonably representative cross section of industry geoscience professionals since 1980. Of interest and somewhat unexpected was the high proportion (20 per cent) of geoscientists who had commenced their experience overseas, indicating that professionals in the Australasian mining industry truly reflect the global nature of our activity.

Respondents could have multiple areas of experience in their initial five years of career and some had this period significantly delayed or interrupted my market conditions. All respondents were grouped with some assumptions into exploration and mining resulting in approximately equal proportions (Figure 2) to assess interdisciplinary interaction frequency by area of activity.

Figure 2. Geoscience roles in the first five years – orange is exploration, green is mining, blue is support and yellow shared.

The categorical frequency response data (daily, weekly, etc) was converted to a continuous variable (a number) to allow development of an interaction ‘score’ averaged for respondents through time weighted by the number of respondents for a particular year to deliver an average score value. These averages were plotted through time and smoothed with a 5-year moving average curve as presented in figure 3 (exploration geoscience) and figure 4 (mining geoscience).

Although there are very slight upwards trends over the 35 years of well populated data in both exploration and mining, the overall trends do not exhibit a strong increase in early career interaction through time. The largest variations in the moving average plots correspond to the major bust and recovery cycles particularly around the early millennium.

Figure 3. Exploration geoscience Interaction Frequency Score.
Figure 4. Mining geoscience Interaction Frequency Score.

Additional areas investigated in the survey and ensuing analysis included the level of participation in employer-run graduate programs and the benefit participants received from them with hindsight; the interaction with lateral disciplines through site and work area visits; the awareness of early career professionals of the benefit of inter-disciplinary interaction at that time in their career; and a desktop review of major and mid-tier company graduate programs to assess if such interactions are currently supported or promoted as a recruitment benefit. Around 8000 words of free-form commentary was also received from respondents leading to a number of recurring themes regarding these issues.

The data collected indicates that in general early career interdisciplinary interactions with lateral professions in the mining value chain have not significantly increased over the decades spanned by the survey. This is despite significantly increased participation in employer graduate programs over those years. We are not making headway on reducing the siloed nature of professional geoscience.

Inter-disciplinary interactions continue to occur at around the same rates as over the last 25 years. This represents a significant opportunity to the industry in professional development. Addressing it will require focused and sustained attention from the minerals sector at a high level particularly within Management and Human Resources professionals, and increased awareness and focus from the early career professionals themselves to address these issues with support from their immediate management. Professional associations and institutes have an import role to play as well through the opportunity of networking, mentoring schemes, technical content and idea exchange and personal encouragement.

Read the full paper here.

Sims, D, Pocoe, J and Puha, L, 2019. Are we getting enough ‘T’ into our Geoscientists? in Proceedings 11th International Mining Geology Conference, pp 379-391 (The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy: Melbourne).

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