April 2016

Developing professional skills for graduates

  • By Alexander Brygula SAusIMM

A recent program at the University of Wollongong has allowed students of minerals-related degrees to improve their employability skills and gain confidence when looking for their first jobs

Studying at university, no matter what subject, can be a stressful experience for those who aren’t well prepared. I can guarantee that every graduate at some point struggled with their degree, whether it be an exam or assignment. However, in the current minerals industry climate in Australia, the real challenge facing students is finding vacation work and graduate positions.

Mining cycle

When I first started my degree in early 2013, the industry had started moving into a different phase of the mining cycle. I was oblivious to how this would affect me. However, when I began searching for vacation work, I struggled to find a position for this summer. It was only recently that I came to the conclusion that the minerals industry doesn’t particularly need me – I need it. There has been a strong shift to finding quality students to take on these positions: ones who already possess professional skills as well as academic knowledge.

At the university level, students cover an extremely broad range of subjects, catering to practically all technical mining disciplines. It is extremely important for future industry leaders to have a broad range of skills, and an understanding of all aspects of the industry such as mine planning, mineral processing and geomechanics. The broad approach to education also allows students the opportunity to find their preferred field, and discover where their greatest strengths lie. However, by covering such an extensive range of subjects, often basic professional skills are overlooked.

Developing skills

When I found out about a free skills workshop at the University of Wollongong (UOW) – run through WEA Illawarra as part of the NSW government’s Smart and Skilled program – I thought it would be a great opportunity to develop my skillset. Under the guidance of Kevin Marston with the assistance of Ray Tolhurst, I and 25 other mining engineering and geology students from Sydney, the Hunter and the Riverina, and Illawarra began our training to improve our employability skills.  I commuted from Sydney to Wollongong to attend these classes, which were held twice a week over the summer break. The course covered five nationally recognised industry-based competencies from the Certificate IV in Leadership and Management. Each of the five competencies has various applications.

Risk and hazard management

The first competency completed was Risk and Hazard Management, a subject which initially appeared trivial but was far from it. During this unit, we began identifying hazards, and imposing controls onto them. However, a point strongly emphasised by our trainers was that risks aren’t always necessarily concerned with safety but can also affect company reputation and credibility.

Mining is potentially one of the world’s most dangerous industries, but also one of the most important. In Australia, we strive for an exceptional safety culture, supported by some of the most stringent standards globally, which is fitting as we are one of the global leaders in the industry.

Health and safety

As we covered our next topic, Work Health and Safety, we learnt how to deal with OHS incidents, and how to record and monitor them to avoid further injuries. An emphasis was made on workplace communication with frontline staff in the form of formal and informal consultations such as ‘toolbox meetings’ to identify dangerous hazards. A safe work environment is critical to keep the industry thriving, as without healthy and safe workplaces, mining would find it hard to function.

Leadership

It is not uncommon for university graduates to find themselves in leadership positions. A necessary skill to succeed in any supervisor role is to have strong interpersonal skills and to be able to deal with emotionally charged situations. I found learning about emotional intelligence was the most useful skill to develop, as its applications are so widespread and come into play on a daily basis. We learnt how to manage our emotions and critically observe ourselves from a third party perspective, to identify some of our weaknesses and how we can improve on them. We also learnt how to effectively communicate with people and encourage them to develop their own emotional intelligence to create a work environment which is emotionally safe for all workers. Emotionally mature work teams are more productive and by ensuring a positive work environment, we can ensure a future for our industry.

Continual improvement

As time progresses, it is necessary that we continually improve, not only on an individual level, but as an industry as a whole. Learning about Implementing Continuous Improvement is a valuable skill which enables Australia to remain a global leader in mining. In this unit we learnt how to interact with staff to find areas where improvements can be made and what we can do to make any necessary changes. We also learnt how to implement and monitor any progress achieved. An area in which our industry has room to improve is the depth at which we mine, a challenge that can be met through the implementation of automation technology.

Diversity

The cultural diversity within Australia is a reflection on how well we operate as a global member of the mining industry. In the final competency unit, we learnt that it is essential that we possess the ability to lead a diverse workforce, not only on the basis of ethnicity, but also on skill levels, backgrounds, perspectives, languages and literacy. A diverse workforce has a range of abilities and skills to draw on which, if utilised appropriately, can lead to increased creativity and innovation.
A workforce that accepts and encourages diversity is free from harassment, discrimination and bullying, and helps individuals learn from each other’s different experiences.

Teamwork

In conjunction with the competency units, the course also allowed us to implement and develop skills in brainstorming and teamwork. We often held open discussions and shared our own experiences relating to the subject matter under consideration. We learnt how to effectively conduct meetings and take minutes. We had support offered to us for writing cover letters and resumes, and suggestions on how to convey the skills we have developed this summer to potential employers. We also received tips on how to conduct ourselves during the interview process and what employers are actually looking for during an interview, such as our level of emotional intelligence. This course provided more than a few competencies and leadership skills – it offered us students a valuable insight to the industry, its past, present and future, and where we fit into it. 

Opportunities

Investing in the future ensures prosperity and longevity for the minerals industry. Through support services offered to students – like this training course – university graduates become more capable and suitable to begin their

professional careers. We are extremely fortunate at the University of Wollongong to be located in a diverse knowledge-intensive mining and metals production region. The local industry, university and AusIMM Branch and Student Chapter work closely and collaboratively together to provide the best possible preparation for any student looking at a minerals industry career. Students are encouraged and supported to attend AusIMM and other professional organisation events, such as technical meetings and conferences, to both increase our technical knowledge and widen our network of industry contacts.

Having experienced minerals industry professionals giving their time to mentor and support us is a huge benefit. For example during the course of the mining engineering degree at UOW we have the opportunity to visit up to 20 mines (both open cut and underground across a broad range of commodities: coal, iron ore, copper, lead/zinc, gold, tin and industrial minerals, as well as ten other associated mining facilities) due to AusIMM members being prepared to be voluntary bus drivers and supervisors during these site visits. It was an incredible experience for me when I visited Westcliff Colliery’s processing plant and I had the opportunity to appreciate the size of the operations I may one day be involved in. Similarly, due to the contacts that have been established, UOW is able to arrange for mining equipment and services suppliers to deliver parts of the mining engineering program and this greatly enhances our learning.

Workshops and lectures

Photos show the new Scieces Teaching Building on UOW’s main Camopus Wollongong. The building will house Chemistry, Biology, and Earth and Sciences students.
Sciences teaching facility. Image courtesy University of Wollongong.

In most of my mining related subjects at the university, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to many guest lecturers present up-to-date and relevant information about the industry. My favourite experience was a three-day explosives and blasting course conducted by Orica. It has been during these practical workshops and special lectures that I have learnt the most. By increasing the quantity of these events, students benefit from the insights of these professional guests. One area of improvement in my degree would be a focus on more industrial-based training. Many graduates will find themselves in operator positions, and as such, it would be beneficial to have students gain tickets in trades like shot firing or drilling. This way, graduates are able to readily enter the workforce and bring their skills and knowledge to the frontline of a mine.

Support services

The main area in which students have the most potential to have their support services improved is in job seeking and finding vacation work. Currently this process is carried out on an individual level, without much support from the university. This is one of the areas in which I struggle the most, and have never learnt about during my degree thus far. It would be of a great benefit to me and other students if we had a careers representative at the university who organises vacation work for students, or at least informs us of any opportunities. This would be a person which has direct contact with professionals in the industry who are seeking students for employment and functions as a networking resource for students. They would also organise various mine trips for the students, increasing our exposure to the industry. As a student without with a developed network of industry professionals, this would be of great benefit.

Through my experiences as a student, I am confident in finding vacation work. Being able to develop various professional skills has put me at an advantage when seeking a position at a mine. My current goal is to develop my networking within the industry, through various AusIMM events, and to complete as much extra training away from my degree as possible. I look forward to taking my first real steps into the industry and being the best mining engineer I can be.   

Feature image: Innovation campus. Image courtesy University of Wollongong.

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