The Australian mining industry continues to be one of the country’s primary economic drivers and has remained fairly stable, despite the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one of the most critical issues to have arisen from the pandemic and that continues to plague the country’s mining sector is a severe skills shortage.

COVID-19 restrictions on Australian exports, lockdowns on interstate travel, and the country’s temporary border lockdown resulted in slowed production, downsizing, and layoffs of employees and contractors.

With production reduced, higher commodity prices, and project delays, many mines could not afford to keep all their employees. They were also able to operate and meet the lower production demands with just bare-bones teams. A high number of workers found themselves being made redundant overnight. This was all despite the government declaring mining an essential sector that would help to revive the pandemic-stricken economy and making efforts to keep mine operations running and workers employed.

However, now that production has ramped up again, mining companies face new problems.

Remote sites that relied largely on fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) and drive-in-drive-out (DIDO) contract workers will be especially struggling to meet the increased production demands, thanks to limitations on FIFO and DIDO workers travel. This, as well as companies not being able to accommodate as many workers in site camps due to social distancing measures, makes for scant crews onsite.

Mining corporations are also facing the serious struggle of rebuilding their workforces from the ground up to meet the higher production demands, all amid a dire skills shortage and high employee turnovers. Securing skilled hires has become twice the battle; with mining companies desperate, candidates now have more bargaining power than they did before the pandemic layoffs. Employers are having to offer more to attract and retain them, especially in terms of salary, benefits packages, and competitive rosters.

In a recent episode on Australian mining podcast Life of Mine, guest Kerry-Lee Lynx, an Australian ‘Underground all-rounder’, and Shane McLeay, Principal Engineer at Australian company Entech, speak on the industry’s skills shortage. Lynx says it is difficult to find suitable candidates with enough experience for contract work. Often, contractors need to have had 10+ years in the underground environment to qualify for positions. However, Lynx says, lots of mine workers leave the sector before they can gain this level of experience – many out of frustration that they haven’t advanced in their career during their employment.

Workers leaving and the high turnover rate in the mining industry remain among the main reasons mining in Australia suffers a skills shortage.

Not all workers leave out of career frustration; when it comes to contract workers, in particular, many leave for better opportunities.

This is even more of an issue considering that the talent pool in Australian mining is small to begin with. In Life of Mine, both Lynx and McLeay lament the fact that schools don’t present the mining industry as a possible career path for children, meaning they grow up not knowing much about it and go on to pursue studies and jobs in other fields.

Lynx says many people are unaware that positions in mining often have great packages and far higher salaries than jobs in many of the more conventional careers. What’s more, those in mining who work hard, as Lynx says, will be able to greatly advance their careers and find that mining is an exciting field to be in.

Attracting and retaining workers: what works and what doesn’t

Lynx mentions that a high salary is not always enough to attract and, more so, retain mining employees. She and McLeay identified some factors that will increase the chances of both attracting more candidates and retaining workers.

  • A benefits package that includes private healthcare for them and their families. Lynx says this is probably the single most attractive benefit a mining company can offer candidates, and that most will choose this even if it means their salary will be lower. Lynx says that part of the appeal for candidates is that they feel healthcare for they and their family is free, and while it is, she says they are technically ‘paying’ for it by taking a lower salary than they could.
  • Providing newcomers with mentors. Lynx, McLeay, and Life of Mine host, Matt Michael discuss that while this would be ideal, it often does not happen. This is because the people who would be fit to mentor others are naturally those with more skills and more senior positions. Due to this, their time will be in demand, and they may not have enough of it to mentor new hires in a busy mine.

    However, they say, it would be worth sacrificing a little time at the start of a new hire’s arrival to give them mentorship, as this would benefit the company in the long run and improve employee retention. The reason for this is that employees who receive mentorship will not only develop a stronger, more diverse skill set, but appreciate and benefit from the support. They will likely feel more welcome and a part of a team and develop a sense of family. As McLeary says, it pays to show new hires ‘a level of love’.
  • Building a team of skilled employees who truly care and are willing to work hard. Says Lynx, it brings down team morale when workers feel there is an employee who isn’t as dedicated and hardworking as they are. This creates the feeling they are carrying a dead weight, and resentment that they receive the same salary as this employee but working twice as hard as them. It also makes for a less cohesive team. Having a hardworking team that feels they are all truly ‘earning’ their salary results in stronger bonds and a feeling that things are fair. Both things that make for greater employee satisfaction and increase worker longevity.
  • Promotions and raises. Offering these to employees when they show growth and as they gain experience improves retention, as in all other industries.
  • Activities and amenities that facilitate social connection. Many workers stay in mine sites for long periods at a time, and McLeary points out that all of them, even introverted or shy employees, need social stimulation and connection with others. McLeary says that providing employees with things that facilitate interaction between workers, such as an onsite gym, gym classes, or tennis court, will increase employee satisfaction and keep morale up, heightening retention.

In terms of contract workers, mining companies need to work to meet their expectations: strong, cohesive teams, a satisfactory benefits package that includes private healthcare coverage, and a high enough salary will all increase company retention of contractors.

Are you a mining professional seeking an exciting career opportunity? Visit CA Mining’s job board to view the latest vacancies in Africa and beyond.