A new approach to mining engineering education

  • By Michael Wood

The past

Alarm bells have been ringing for some time and for many at the coalface, the sound has been deafening. The falling trend of graduates and graduate intakes into mining education has continued.

This trend is not historically uncommon, following the cyclical nature of the industry, but somehow this current event feels different from those of the past and potentially more permanent. Strategic inaction from companies and outside perceptions of the sector have continued to erode the industry’s ability to attract young professionals. This issue is further complicated by a more competitive and dynamic labour market, a trend that is set to continue.

Student number issues briefly hit the LinkedIn feeds late 2017 when Evolution’s Jake Klein raised the issue; however, we are yet to see the industry truly respond.

Universities across Australia are now reviewing the viability of mining engineer programs or looking to combine schools that risk minerals education falling away more gradually, more silently. The review by universities is understandable given student intakes and the lack of interest by companies to invest and support mining engineer programs during the recent downturn. Universities are trying to give scholarships to students, and not having enough applicants to give them all away.

So what does this all mean and what can we do about it as passionate industry leaders?

The future

The truth is that although there are lots of theories and postulations, nobody really knows what to do. In spite of this (but with best intentions), a whole range of tactical initiatives have been rolled out in an attempt to ‘fix’ the problem. It is fair to say that we have now reached a point where these traditional efforts are not effecting obvious change and a new, modern and more collaborative strategic approach is desperately required.

Current ideas on engaging young professionals, lifting university numbers and graduates of the future:

Modern mining

  • Countries such as Sweden have invested heavily in research and development (R&D) and moved from old school mining and towards disruptive technology, automation, big data – modern mining – attracting a new generation to the industry and changing the perception of mining.

High school STEM

  • Industry and companies that support STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and scholarships in Years 9, 10, 11 and 12 at high school are required – get people interested early. Targeting current university students or waiting for the few graduates to finish a mining degree is too late in the professional pipeline to get the numbers we need in coming years. How can we further promote and support the Minerals School Camps and integrate an interest in mining into secondary education?

Commit to universities

  • Companies and industry bodies can make long-term commitments to universities to support their mining schools as well as R&D. Use the boom of the recent past to fund the downturn and survive until the next growth phase, lock ourselves in so we don’t turn and run the minute we need a few easy (soft) savings.

Maintain graduate intake

  • When companies scrap graduate numbers, the news quickly spreads to schools and universities, damaging our industry reputation. While it can be easy to cut a few graduate salaries for a quick win, companies have the opportunity to look deeper to improve their value proposition without cutting out our future professionals.

Industry leadership

  • Strong and public advocacy, funding and support from institutes like the AusIMM and the Minerals Council of Australia will be needed to lift student numbers and get universities through to the next growth cycle.

The AusIMM business development team led by Melissa Holdsworth, and supported by the MinSoc committee, is working with universities and other stakeholders to attract young people to the modern mining industry. AusIMM is showcasing their commitment to this issue by forming an Education Taskforce, under the guidance of the Policy and Advocacy Committee to consider strategic priorities for the AusIMM when it comes to encouraging young people into the industry. AusIMM have already started collaborative research into this field led by AusIMM Policy and Media Adviser Brigid Meney, with the MCA and METS Ignited, on a project investigating student perceptions towards the mining industry.

The AusIMM team is formulating the strategic framework to guide our future engagement initiatives. Across the course of the coming months we look forward to communicating these developments and how this will translate to outcomes across the industry.

If you have thoughts and ideas, please contact:

  • Brigid Meney – bmeney@ausimm.com.au
  • Adrian Pratt – adriangpratt@bigpond.com
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