April 2018

How lucky were we? Geoscience working lives

  • By Bill Koppe, Peter Hayden, Bill Turner

An overview of a group of geoscientists who graduated in the late 1960s and the forces that shaped their careers

A group of geoscientists who graduated from the University of Queensland (UQ) in the late 1960s have recorded their career experiences, covering a period of spectacular and volatile growth in the Australian resource industries. This article aims to summarise the forces that shaped the working lives of this UQ cohort, and distil career lessons and strategies that could be useful for today’s crop of graduating geoscientists.

The UQ cohort was fortunate to graduate when Australia was experiencing a resources boom involving large-scale developments in iron ore, coal, uranium, oil and gas and nickel resources, which created strong demand for geoscientists.

A decade earlier, the majority of Australia’s geoscientists were employed in the public sector, in government geological surveys and universities. The post-war development of Australia’s resources, which began in earnest in the 1960s, saw the number of geoscientists employed in Australia climb from fewer than 1000 in the 1950s to over 1700 by 1967 and then to over 2400 by 1978.

While the UQ cohort benefited from expanding employment opportunities during their working lives, their work also contributed to employment of geoscientists through the growth of the Australian resources industry, the exports from which grew from $10 billion in 1969 to approximately $200 billion in 2017.

Within this environment of industrial growth, diversification and globalisation, many of the late 1960s UQ graduates were able to spend all of their working lives as professional resource industry geoscientists. Others moved on to a wide range of managerial roles in industry or worked in the public sector in research, education and government. Most were always able, one way or another, to earn a decent living on the back of their training in earth sciences, to be challenged in meaningful ways and have the opportunity to live and work around the world.

The changing world of geosciences and resources

Since the late 1960s, the resource industries and the working lives of geoscientists have been transformed by momentous changes in geopolitics, markets, technology and societal attitudes.

The industrialisation and urbanisation of Asia, centred first on Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and later on China and India, has been largely responsible for the spectacular growth in the value of Australian mineral exports. The end of the Cold War and the accompanying dissolution of the political and trade barriers with China and the former Soviet Union also contributed to the development of globalisation and the liberalisation of world trade, providing further impetus to the growth of Australian exports.

Entirely new markets for mineral commodities opened up on the back of Asian industrialisation and urbanisation – including the seaborne trades in coal, iron ore and liquefied natural gas, which are now a mainstay of the Australian economy. The loosening of price controls of mineral commodities has also had a major impact on mineral resource development. For example: the removal of the iron ore embargo in the mid-1960s that led to a boom in iron ore developments, deregulation of the gold price in 1970 that led to spectacular growth in Australian gold exploration and production, and the shift in oil-pricing power from western oil companies to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (‘OPEC’) has also had a profound impact on energy resource exploration and development ever since the 1973 OPEC oil embargo.

Technological change has also been momentous since the UQ cohort graduated, profoundly affecting the exploration and production of mineral resources, the way geoscientists practise their professions, and the interaction of resources industries and society. Consider the following:

  • improved production and processing technologies have opened up the development of ever deeper and lower grade resources generally, reduced production costs and, in some cases such as the recovery of unconventional gas, were a catalyst for the development of whole new industries
  • exploration and resource assessment processes were transformed by the proliferation and expansion of geoscience data sources, including access to new realms of satellite data, in parallel with the rapid growth of computing power and modelling capabilities
  • community access to information through the internet has underpinned wider community engagement in resource development issues, and the growth of community activism opposed to project developments – particularly fossil fuels.
  • Continuous change of one kind or another has been a constant companion throughout the working lives of the UQ cohort, underpinning the dramatic growth of the industry and career opportunities, but also requiring individual flexibility and adaptive learning in order to respond to the challenges and opportunities.

Cycles of demand for resources and geoscientists

Since the end of World War II, the development of the Australian resources industry has seen periods of booming exploration and development, each followed by lulls (or busts) in exploration and development while increased production was absorbed in the marketplace.

Prelude – post-war period until the early 1960s

This period was marked by low levels of resource exploration and development, with little private sector employment for geoscientists.

Boom – the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s

Resource development expanded rapidly, driven primarily by industrial development in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, while nickel exploration also boomed during the Vietnam War. Removal of the iron ore embargo in the mid-1960s and deregulation of the gold price in 1970 followed by the 1973 oil shock, as well as uranium discoveries in the Northern Territory, provided further impetus for a period of strong but volatile growth in Australian resource development.

Bust – mid-1980s until early 2000s

Commodity prices came under pressure in the early 1980s as newly developed production capacity came on stream. While mining employment continued to rise on the back of production increases, exploration activity was reduced. The collapse of commodity prices in the late 1980s ushered in a long period of subdued commodity demand, halting most new mining developments. The demand for geoscientists in large resource companies was also subdued, and it was during this period that many of the UQ cohort either moved into management roles or became self-employed consultants.

Boom – 2004 until 2013

Rapid growth of industrial development and urbanisation in China and India began to drive up demand and prices of metals by 2004, in parallel with increases in the prices of oil and gold following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With Asian industrialisation and Middle Eastern conflict affecting both demand and sentiment, mineral commodity prices rose to new highs, triggering commitments to the development of major new production capacity across most commodities. Mining industry employment more than doubled over the decade, which closed with strong mining investment and the employment of geoscientists rising to over 15 000.

Bust – since 2013

Slackening growth in Chinese demand for raw materials began emerging gradually and with the commissioning of newly developed production capacity, commodity prices had begun to soften by 2012. Metal prices then roughly halved in 2013 and, with growing unconventional oil production in the USA, there was also a fall in energy prices of about the same magnitude in 2014. The boom period had created a large increase in production capacity which, with slackening global demand, resulted in over-supply and a decline in exploration and demand for geoscientists.

While the employment market for geoscientists has been difficult in the current lull, it is important not to lose sight of the broader framework of boom and bust cycles that have seen the number of professional geoscientists employed in Australia grow from around 1700 in 1967 to more than 8000 in 2017 – almost all of that growth occurring in the private sector. Although it is undeniable that private sector demand for geoscientists can be volatile in the short-term, it is equally undeniable that employment growth has been very strong over the long run.

Geoscience career paths

Before attempting to distil the experiences of the UQ cohort to identify career learnings that are relevant to young geoscientists today, it is worth noting some of the longer-term changes that have affected geoscientists’ working lives over the last few decades:

  • Globalisation progressively opened up most of the world for the employment of Australian-trained geoscientists.
  • Resource developments as a result of exploration success have steadily taken on increasing numbers of geoscientists. In parallel, the focus of activity for dedicated metals-exploration geologists increasingly moved offshore to lesser-developed countries.
  • New technologies associated with coal seam gas, geothermal energy, carbon capture and storage have also required substantial geoscience support.
  • The Australian exploration and mining services industry has emerged as a major globally-focused employer and as a leader in technology and software development.
  • Environment, social and governance issues have become increasingly important to resource companies in establishing a ‘licence to operate’, and these areas have progressively provided more employment opportunities for geoscientists.
  • Against this background of expanding and evolving geoscience activities, there are some learnings from the UQ cohort’s working life experiences that are still relevant to young geoscientists today.

Surfing the boom and bust cycles

It is reasonable to assume that boom and bust cycles will continue to be a feature of the resources industry, underpinned by the continued growth of the global population and by the alleviation of poverty in the lesser developed countries of the world. Shortages of mineral commodities inevitably lead to price increases, which in turn lead to the development of new capacity and then ultimately to over-supply and a fall in prices. These cycles should be seen as a fact of life for geoscientists, particularly those working in the private sector.

While there has been a general tendency for the boom cycles of different mineral commodities to coincide, there have been times when energy commodities have remained buoyant while metal prices have been depressed. The cycles may also vary geographically in their impact, with the opening up of new mineral provinces sustaining localised booms and new employment opportunities. These commodity and geographic variations in the resource cycles provide some scope for meeting the associated employment challenges by switching to a more buoyant commodity or to a newly developing region. In essence, that means maintaining the flexibility to follow the demand for geoscience services and, where necessary to move between industry sectors, commodities, roles or geographic locations – perhaps even taking the less-travelled path.

Workforce entry timing

Almost all of the UQ cohort went straight into the workforce after graduating or completing honours, taking advantage of the then buoyant job market, and deferring further post-graduate study for a few years. Conversely, many of the UQ cohort of the late 1950s, who graduated when the job market was much more subdued, went straight on to post-graduate study and did not enter the workforce until they had completed their higher degrees. In the current subdued employment market, it may also be a good option for new graduates to undertake further post-graduate study or training in specialist geoscience skills – the market is already starting to turn.

Public and private sectors

There was a sharp distinction in job security for the UQ cohort. None of those who worked in the public sector were ever retrenched, whereas most of those who worked in the private sector were retrenched at least once during their working lives. Those in the public sector were able to remain with their families in one location for most of their working lives, whereas in the private sector, a preparedness to travel, with or without an accompanying family, was generally mandatory. The stability advantages of public sector employment are partly offset in the private sector by the higher salaries offered.

Mobility and role flexibility

Boom and bust cycles are not necessarily globally uniform in their impact, and the development of new resource provinces can create localised demand for geological services at times when mature resource provinces are in the doldrums. There are therefore often job opportunities for geoscientists who are more prepared to relocate or commute. Generally, those provinces will be in lesser developed countries and/or in remote locations, and while that may add to the adventure of working in resource industries, it may not be too easy to combine it with raising and educating a family. For the sake of family stability, some of the cohort at times opted for employment outside the resources industry rather than relocating.

However, those working in the private sector were generally relatively mobile and moved around to wherever there were development opportunities or where geoscience services were in demand, often overseas – many having wonderful culturally enriching experiences.

Additionally, while some of the UQ cohort remained practising professional geoscientists throughout their working lives, many also made mid-career moves into management roles in business development and project development or into roles associated with the environmental and community impacts of resource developments.

Commodity flexibility

Most of the cohort started their careers firmly committed to either ‘hard rocks’ (as the host of metals) or to ‘soft rocks’ (as the host of energy resources). Because the boom and bust cycles of the hard-rock and soft-rock sectors are not always synchronised, there were opportunities to move from one sector to the other – a move easier to achieve in the early stage of one’s career.

Role specialisation

Most of the cohort adapted to the booms and busts through flexibility, and moving between roles, locations, commodities or industry sectors as the opportunities or needs arose. However, there were some who worked as professional geologists throughout their working lives by establishing themselves as the providers of specialised expertise or services. Specialisation in particular commodities, technologies or orebodies may require a preparedness to provide those services in far-flung geographies, whereas specialisation in the geology of a particular region may limit opportunities for work outside that region – it’s really a matter of where one’s passion lies.

Personal fulfilment

Overwhelmingly, the members of the UQ cohort are glad they chose to study earth sciences. Those who have made their careers in geoscience have found fulfilment and enjoyment in ways which may have included a basic love of geology and geoscience research, an affinity for the bush and an outdoor lifestyle, or the sense of accomplishment that comes from the discovery and development of economically important mineral resources.

The spectacular growth of the Australian resource industries has been accompanied by equally spectacular creation of wealth – the resources sector currently provides over 50 per cent of Australia’s export revenue, and accounts for around 8.5 per cent of gross national product. That is wealth that flows through to the whole community in taxes and royalties, as well as to the many institutions, conventional and traditional landowners, businesses, shareholders, consultants, contractors and employees, all of whom benefit directly from resource development. The UQ cohort often contributed to this wealth creation in their roles as explorers or project developers, and they take pride in the contribution they have seen it make to improving the lives of so many people.

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