The mining sector is experiencing a growing gap in its workforce pipeline, with employers facing a major skills shortage at the same time as industry forecasts predict the need for an additional 24,000 workers to uphold projects across Australia between 2022 and 2027.
The talent pool is lacking in size, growth, diversity, and the experience required to recruit for core production roles.
There is increasing importance in engaging with young people early. Doing so equips them with critical science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills, and raises awareness of the benefits and opportunities in mining
One person attracted to mining at a young age was Senior Mining Engineer with Newcrest, Jolene Wraith.
As a child in South Africa, she had a natural interest in semi-precious stones and rocks.
At 10 years old, a conversation with some exploration geologists drilling on her family’s farm, and visiting a mine site at school, were the nudges Jolene needed to study and follow a career in mining.
In 2003 she became one of the first women in South Africa to graduate with a degree in mining engineering.
Education is the key to filling up the talent pool
Now based in Australia, Jolene recognises the impact her early exposure to mining had in driving her study and career choices.
Hoping to ignite that spark for somebody else, Jolene volunteers through CSIRO’s STEM Professionals in Schools program, meeting regularly with year 3 students at a local primary school.
The program partners STEM Professionals with a teacher to bring STEM subjects to life for students.
This can be through career talks, learning activities and real-life demonstrations of STEM applications in practice.
In Jolene’s case, she takes the opportunity to share her journey into mine engineering, and with her teacher partner, leads some fun mining-based activities.
“I love how engaged and curious the children are,” says Jolene.
“In my last visit we discussed what mining involved, and why it is needed.
“The kids had lots of questions. Like how do you breathe two kilometres underground? How are explosives made? Have I ever found a diamond? … I did once.”
Jolene brings samples of rock, ore, and gold for the students handle. She also uses 3D model of Newcrest’s Lihir gold mine “because a mine in a volcano is cool.”
This opened a conversation about how Alaya Rock is significant to the people of Lihir. It also created discussion about the responsibility of mining to respect the land and beliefs, and not cause damage.
To put this principle into practice, each student was given a spade and asked to dig a pit around a golden spray-painted spot on the ground.
“If they damaged the spot they were kicked off the island and lost their licence to operate,” says Jolene.
“The winners managed to tunnel under the dot. It was great fun.”
Protecting the environment: What’s mined is yours
Jolene also found the young students were already familiar with some negative associations with mining.
“They ask if it is dangerous,” she says.
“We talk about deforestation, land deformation, and air and noise pollution from the equipment we use and the products we mine.
“We also talk about how engineers are positioned to get value out of mines while reducing these negative impacts through innovation and responsible mining.”
Another topic is how mining is transitioning towards net zero by using the latest technologies.
“I think it’s important to discuss the challenges in mining because engineers aim to solve them.”
A female face in mining
Despite studying and working in historically male-dominated spaces, Jolene says for the most part, she has enjoyed the support of her colleagues and family.
However, her journey has not been without challenges. Stories she shares with students are also about overcoming barriers.
“My school did not offer advanced maths, so I had to go to the Afrikaans school next door to do it. Doing advanced maths in a second language was challenging,” said Jolene.
In seventh grade she was advised by a student councilor not to pick the subjects she wanted because “girls can’t be geologists.” She was forced to do typing and Home Ed instead. She remembers crying and being angry about the injustice.
“In year 10, when it was time to choose subjects again, the school told me earth sciences were useless and I would not get a job.
“Even at my entrance interview at university they tried to talk me into studying medicine instead. They couldn’t understand why I’d want to do mining. They didn’t believe I knew what I was getting myself into. I’m glad I was stubborn.”
Jolene also met mixed support from her parents. Her father supported her interest in geology and science by bringing her core samples and rocks from his work as a fitter. He helped her with science homework. But he did not support her in studying mining engineering.
“He refused to pay for my studies and never visited me at university. He didn’t attend my graduation. He believed it was not a career or industry for a girl and I should do something else,” said Jolene.
“But in the end he was proud of me and realised I’d made a great choice for myself.
“My mum was supportive and helped me write letters to companies to ask for a bursary to pay for university.
“I had a lot of support from industry. That was invaluable in enabling me to join this workforce.
“I’m glad I can role model what can be achieved in mining and want to see more children benefitting from the same level of industry backing that I’ve received.”
Research by Engineers Australia has found that although the engineering profession is the biggest employer of the STEM professions, it has the smallest female representation of STEM vocations. Only 11.2 per cent of the engineering workforce are female.
The biggest barrier to females considering engineering was lack of awareness and familiarity as a career option.
Education and awareness through programs such as STEM Professionals in Schools is an important support towards boosting engineering entry numbers.
Engineering the future
Jolene’s partnership is giving an insight into how engineering provides solutions to major challenges facing our world. And hopefully bolstering her own workforce with fresh minds and faces.
“There is important work to be done and I want to retire someday knowing I’m leaving the work in capable hands,” says Jolene.
“I think in the next 10-30 years it is going to be very exciting to be an engineer in mining.
“There are serious issues to solve to get us to Net Zero and beyond,” she says.
“The science is there. Now we need engineers to apply the science and drive the change.
“There is new technology and AI to incorporate into our mines to make them safer. It’s going to be an amazing time and, if I was a kid, I’d chose to be a mining engineer again.”
Seeing science in action supports STEM teaching
STEM professionals like Jolene are one way to inspire students. What about inspiring the teachers?
Recognising the critical contribution from teachers, we opened the lab doors at our Waterford minerals research site to STEM teachers in Perth.
As part of National Science Week, 35 local teachers were invited to an evening of exploration, taking in various science displays, touring facilities and ‘speed-meeting a scientist.’
Sharing career paths and showing real world examples of STEM in action gave the teachers some ‘ore-some’ examples to take back to the classroom. One example is using the mobile phone to talk about the materials, natural resources and mineral processing required to produce our most relied upon device.
The meeting of professions taught everyone a lesson on how important it is to inspire students towards a STEM career.
Teacher and scientists united to learn so they can encourage a new generation of STEM professions for the future workforce in resources.
Does Jolene's story resonate with you? Are you a STEM professional? Consider signing up to be a volunteer in our STEM Professionals in Schools program.