June 2015

Minerals professionals central to industry’s productivity challenges

  • By Michael Catchpole MAusIMM, Chief Executive, AusIMM

The challenges of forging a sustainable career in the mineral sector have been discussed by AusIMM members and the AusIMM board in recent years.

The boom and bust cycles of investor interest, capital investment, commodity prices and business activity are clear causes of turbulence in the careers of AusIMM members.

Many discussions have focussed on the patterns of reduced employment opportunity for experienced professionals and rapid drops in enrolments in relevant university courses when the industry decides that it needs to ‘tighten its belt’ in the face of market pressures.

In a capital intensive sector where companies have few opportunities to quickly trim costs, it can seem obvious and inevitable that staffing costs will be reduced when market pressures rapidly ramp-up (even if they have been predicted well ahead of the turn).

In comments made as part of the AusIMM’s Professional Employment surveys, AusIMM members have expressed a diverse range of views on these issues. Many members see that in Australia a major adjustment was expected and needed because the long-boom had driven wages and employment conditions that were not sustainable. Others express regret that in the rush to cut costs many companies put their long-term future at risk with the loss of corporate knowledge and professional expertise. A common theme is that while the booms are exciting, the busts can be devastating. Most wish for a more stable environment but the lived-experience seems to be increasingly volatile and self-reinforcing cycles that leave minerals professionals feeling powerless.

The insights and personal experiences of AusIMM members during challenging times offer important intelligence regarding the pressures on the minerals industry and the ability of the sector to face – and even embrace – the challenges that new market realities present. The AusIMM has worked hard in recent years to gather this intelligence and convey it to minerals companies and governments. For governments the boom and bust has some very undesirable effects, but governments are very unwilling to make any significant interventions in what economics theory tells them are natural market cycles (every market swings up and down trying to find equilibrium between supply and demand – it’s just that the minerals market is more volatile than those for many other goods and services). The ability of governments to moderate the volatile minerals employment market is limited, and their appetite for intervention is nil.

Minerals companies often face a limited range of unpalatable options to meet the pressures of the markets – whether that is adapting to changing investor requirements, or dealing with the lottery of unpredictable commodity prices. In judging how to respond to such pressures, companies sometimes make rapid adjustments to meet the short-term challenges that might appear to erode their ability to achieve future success. For the AusIMM and each of the individual minerals professionals affected, this is probably most obvious when it leads to redundancies amongst skilled professionals and shrinking opportunities for graduates.

If you only read the business section of mainstream newspapers, you might feel that the level of analysis of the minerals sector and its response to changing markets is fairly superficial and neglects to focus on the importance of minerals industry employees in generating and sustaining business success. Fortunately there is a strong body of sophisticated analysis that puts the focus on the central role that skilled employees play in the success of any minerals venture. The feature in this edition of the AusIMM Bulletin on Production Efficiency gives you some insight into this discourse. They are issues that affect all AusIMM members, and we encourage you to log onto the Bulletin online and make use of the new Member Comments functionality to express your view on these matters.

Postscript: Around the time this edition of the AusIMM Bulletin is being published, the AusIMM’s annual Professional Employment survey will be released to members. Please support this important survey again in 2015 so that we continue to have a robust reading of the state of the employment market for minerals professionals. This information is vital to the Institute’s policy formulation, advocacy role and services to members.

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