August 2015

Expanding career skills education to offset the boom/bust cycle

Closeup shot of a man writing
  • By Stephen Hancock FAusIMM(CP), retired consultant

Expanding what is taught to students is one way to address the harsh cyclicity of the industry

As succinctly expressed by the AusIMM President Rex Berthelsen in the February AusIMM Bulletin, AusIMM builds careers and communities. This objective is laudable; however, as all who have been involved in the minerals industry are aware, the industry is inherently cyclical, a result of repeated exceedances in demand followed by exceedances in supply. These cycles have given the industry a reputation for being a ‘boom and bust, hire and fire’ style of employer.

This reputation is not only bad for mining personnel who are victims of the cycles, but it is also bad for an industry that needs an increasingly wide variety of skills and experience and, during booms, needs them in numbers that are way beyond the capacity of academia to produce. The consequence of this skills shortfall in Australia is the necessity to attract staff at significant cost from other enterprises or from overseas. This is expensive and inefficient.

These cycles of extreme demands for staff and skill deplete regulatory bodies of those skills that are critical to the industry having a rational and seriously informed environment in which to work into the future.

As stated in the February AusIMM Bulletin by Dr Ian Gould, a doyen of the mining industry, ‘the industry emerged over the last decade as more respected for its contribution, but no more loved’. This too is true of many of the people who have been retrenched from mining and energy companies and from the many enterprises that service the industry. This outcome is not consistent with the objectives of the AusIMM as stated above and is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently.

Gould also notes that academic institutions have their own ‘uncertainties’ by which I presume he means serious problems and dilemmas. These are in part financial and in part philosophical. Universities need to determine whether they are to be educational institutions preparing graduates for immediate entry to the work place, or for immediate entry to more specialised, more focussed training by way of higher degrees, diplomas and the like. In both cases, how these can be funded and afforded are very much in doubt at present.

The reality is that the range of skills required by the mining industry is now so diverse that the production of anything other than well-educated post graduates to take up Tier 1 (new entrant) roles is all that can be expected of our universities. Further training to move graduates to higher value positions either with multi-disciplinary consultancy companies serving the mining industry or within the industry itself requires the employer to carry a considerable training load. Regrettably, few mining or consultant companies in the build up to, or in the middle of, a high demand period have enough experienced staff available with time to provide mentoring to new entrant professional staff.

Whilst we have all learned a considerable number of skills on-the-job, we receive no accreditation for this learning and, in some cases, the learned skills may not be as good as we would like to think they are. This may be because they have never been thoroughly tested within our work experience by peers of sufficient experience themselves. This may only happen when the skills are seriously tested technically and when our application of those skills fails! More particularly, many of the skills learned are of less value to technical personnel in the event of their being necessarily retrenched, or if a person wishes to transfer to a similar but non-mining industry. This is because the skills are unconfirmed by independent accreditation and may be too narrow in scope.

While on-the-job learning experiences may act as a means to attract staff, and the lack of independent accreditation acts to hold staff, it is not a situation which the mining industry should tolerate. Clearly, it is also not a situation that new industry candidates would desire, as it renders their future career prospects much less certain.

Are there solutions?

There is need to address both the reasonable demands of the industry and the reasonable desires of potential new professional candidates to have a rewarding but flexible career. The solutions to this problem would seem to be to use the cyclicity of the industry as an advantage and to redefine the educational and skills training elements within a much broader and more progressively available industrial context. This could be supplemented with having accreditation of on-the-job training by industry certified professionals.

There is need to address both the reasonable demands of the industry and the reasonable desires of potential new professional candidates.

The necessary redefinitions should include the following:

  • identifying and defining the skills the mining industry requires
  • identifying the other industry sectors who also use those skills
  • determining the educational content to underpin post-graduate courses that provide the knowledge and understanding required for candidates to become effective professionals across the various industry sectors which use those skills
  • defining the alternative paths which may be appropriate to gain skills recognition including on-the-job learning and accreditation by peers
    and/or organisations.

The range of skills required by the mining industry is very wide. It includes:

  • earth science understanding, covering a range of skills such as geomechanics and mineralogy
  • metallurgical technology
  • mining engineering
  • drilling and sampling technology
  • data collection, management and manipulation, including analytical techniques, statistical evaluation and modelling
  • economic assessment and risk evaluation
  • regulatory (legal) and social constraints including the concepts of physical, environmental and economic sustainability
  • responsibility and ethics
  • management tools and techniques
  • and many others.

The above topics need to be introduced as educational elements in undergraduate courses so that they are understood as necessary areas for further study by students seeking to enter the mining industry. Notably many are also common needs in other industries.

Specifically, to be able to understand the above topics, students need to be initially educated to a prerequisite level in basic subjects such as:

  • maths
  • English
  • physics
  • chemistry ( including organic chemistry)
  • geology
  • economics
  • law.

It cannot be assumed that an adequate understanding will have been achieved in secondary education. The first year of tertiary education at least needs to achieve a common and adequate level of understanding of the above fundamental subjects. Subsequent years can then be entered into with confidence. Achieving a reasonable understanding of these subjects, as well as completing a major within the current three year course, seems unlikely even if the course was extended to four years. Yet this appears to be what is attempted now and this exacerbates employment problems for many graduates.

The employment problem derives from the fact that the ‘boom/bust’ cycles of the industry occur over a period of about 3-5 years. This means that new entrants to their first degree, excited by the boom-time impression of the mining industry, are inclined to enrol in mining oriented courses only to graduate from current three and four year courses as the boom times die away and with them the job opportunities. Worse, by virtue of their major having dominated their degree, they have insufficiently transferable skills to be able to be readily accepted as professionals into employment in other industries.

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The solution to these various problems seem to be to recreate tertiary technical education and training towards a more multi-layered accreditation aimed at imparting skills which are flexible in content and timing; informative in career decision making and which ultimately produce more broadly educated and experienced skilled professionals required by various industries beyond mining such as:

  • engineering and science consultants which may be specialists or multi-disciplinary practitioners servicing
    the following:

    • environmental studies, including environmental, resource and strategic planning
    • extractive industries, including construction material acquisition such as quarrying for hard rock, industrial minerals, sand and gravel, clays, etc
    • solid waste management including resource recovery and recycling technologies
    • civil and chemical engineering
    • resource evaluation and analysis
  • the industries that are serviced by the consultants as listed above
  • regulator roles
  • academia.

To meet the demands of these employment areas, as well as for mineral resources and mining, it would seem that students should not initially be encouraged to focus on specific industry majors, but should rather concentrate on progressing their understanding generically to encompass all the overlapping industry skills in an educational rather than in a vocational sense.

Certainly, it must be recognised that students get excited at the outset about working within an industry that attracts them, but they need to be given the information so they can appreciate that the education and training they seek can also fit other employment areas. Course structure and accreditation should recognise this if they are to attract students.

An attractive first stage course structure might lead to an entry level diploma (say two years) in technical support. This would make the diploma holder employable at reasonable rates and a candidate for on-the-job training as an employee within the candidate’s preferred industry for a year or more. This period would also ensure that the new diploma holder would get some on-the-job training, a better sense of the industry as a future career and where particular interests lie, be it the minerals industry or one of the other areas where skill demands overlap.

The finalisation of a first degree course with a major would then follow, albeit that extending the inter-industry education subjects should also be pursued to maintain the cross industry education and potential for career flexibility.

The timing of degree completion would be at a time of the person’s choosing. This might be during an industry downturn, or at a time when the employer may choose to encourage a promising employee, or as a consequence of the person choosing another path or another industry as their career path. It would seem likely that this degree study might take at least another two years full time, at the end of which degree/honours/masters status would be conferred.

Hopefully, the pursuit of education by a layered approach to accreditation will result in better informed, motivated and employable personnel. Regrettably, educational programs of this nature are not the norm in Australia, despite the employer industries having sought split courses for some time.

The pursuit of education by a layered approach to accreditation will result in better informed, motivated and employable personnel.

Higher degree studies and professional development training should be available as is normal and available within the industry chosen, but the option of redirecting a career would still be available, because of the broader educational range included within the initial diploma and in subsequent degree completion.

At all stages the role of on-the-job training should remain important but only if it can be accredited by competent certified professionals or organisations. At the very least, on-the-job training could be a basis of recognisable pre-requisites for more formal educational or training courses.

How to implement a solution

Achieving a comprehensive restructuring of tertiary and higher educational arrangement should be undertaken by the range of industry institutions and professional bodies with academic organisations to ensure that the economic and geographic demands of Australian industry are met. Indeed, the education and training considerations might also include the means by which sub-professional staff, who may already have trade qualifications, could be engaged to use their experience and intellect to achieve the prerequisites for professional accreditation so as to make them greater value contributors to industry.

Conclusions

Much work needs to be initiated if a satisfactory conclusion in creating stable and flexible careers is to be achieved for entrants to the inherently cyclical mining industry. This work has been started both by the Minerals Council of Australia (Minerals Tertiary Education Council) and through the MINAD (Minerals Industry National Associate Degree) Project. However, these initiatives do not appear to integrate training with other industries and professional bodies that share skills commonality with the mining industry. Only when there is a clear definition and understanding of these common skills requirements, and the problems of accrediting them, can strategies for rational implementation be made. This may involve a number of discussions outside the comfort zones of the various parties.

The process of determining how best to move education and on-the-job training systems forward which encompass broader industry skills needs to be progressed determinedly. It also requires the existing professional cohort to be involved in the debate as it progresses.

Every element of the mining industry, including the many large and small consultancies which provide critical support, can gain from this debate, as too will their staff whose career opportunities should become wider in choice and reward. Further, it should also work to cross fertilise ideas between the various industry elements. At present cross fertilisation only really emanates from the few truly multidisciplinary consultancies that practice across broad industrial sectors, although their staff can still suffer similar (but lesser) employment uncertainties consequent upon market downturns in the mining industry.

Acknowledgements

I wish to acknowledge the input of my fellow members on the AusIMM Consultants Society Committee and of Mr Richard Moody who gave me thoughtful and provocative comments which added to the content of this article.   

Stephen Hancock is a hydrogeologist, and is the founder of the multi-disciplinary consultancy now URS Corporation in Australasia.

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