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Geopolitics, skills, workplace, social licence and inclusion: Experts debate the big challenges facing Australian mining

31st October 2023

     

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Australia has a “once in 100-year" opportunity to play a key role in providing minerals to support the global energy transition, the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Sydney has been told - but the prospect is not without its challenges. 

The hurdles facing the Australian mining industry over the past few years have not been insignificant, ranging from geopolitical disruptions to supply chain constraints and unprecedented weather events affecting production across the country.

Against this backdrop, some of Australia’s lading mining figures gathered on Day 1 of IMARC to discuss the Challenges and Opportunities for the Australian Mining and Resources Industry and how to address them.

Workforce Shortages/Skills Gap

The Australian economy is facing one of the toughest skills and labour shortages in a generation, and the mining industry has not been immune, with staffing deficiencies across a range of occupations, from drivers to mining engineers and geologists.

Chief Executive Officer of Austmine Christine Gibbs Stewart said with technology advancing as rapidly as it is, it’s difficult to know what skills the industry will require for the future.

“However, one of the ways we can focus on attracting the relevant skills we need is by telling our industry’s story better in terms of how innovative we are. If we all get out there and talk about how technologically advanced we are, I think we’ll attract more skills and people to our workforce,” Ms Gibbs Stewart said. 

“Just look at what’s happening in society in general, whether that be asset management, managing the workforce, safety, automation, robotics, digital data and analytics; the mining industry is really at the forefront of technology, and we should be promoting that.”

CEO of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Stephen Durkin said building workforce capacity and capability must be urgently addressed before it becomes a serious issue for the sector.

“With 20% of our industry – well over 100,000 people – being tertiary qualified professionals, we are dependent on this workforce to do the work in front of us and shape the future of our industry,” Mr Durkin said.

“The decline in universities offering traditional mining courses presents a real threat, hence why we’re focusing on working with undergraduates to educate them about what a career in mining is really all about. Businesses should also deliver content to those in the industry, and those looking to join, to ensure we continue to have the capability essential to support future growth.” 

Political Impacts

Geopolitics is broadly acknowledged as one of the most significant issues impacting the mining sector in 2023, with the war in Ukraine, climate events and new governments – both locally and internationally – driving substantial constraints. 

Rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics are causing dramatic shifts in the supply and demand of minerals globally, and given Australia relies so heavily on trade relationships and export markets, what happens across the shores can have significant ramifications locally.

Within Australia, according to CEO of the NSW Minerals Council Stephen Galilee, there is always an inherent political risk associated with the expansion of the mining industry. 

“The politicians developing these mining strategies have to be wary of the fact that whether they’re deciding to modify, extend or close a mine, there will always be some kind of adverse reaction from somewhere within the community,” Mr Galilee said.

“The people calling the shots politically need to be able to back up what they’ve decided to do; there needs to be a political will to take that risk and a desire to prove they’re legitimate about the critical minerals strategies they’re releasing.”

Diversity and Inclusion in the mining industry

CEO of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Stephen Durkin says diversity and inclusion within the mining sector remains a significant challenge for the industry.

He says gender disparities, a lack of racial and ethnic diversity, discrimination and harassment, the perception of limited access to opportunities and safety concerns are a drag on the industry’s reputation and remain an ongoing concern for companies.

“The brutal reality is that bullying and harassment within our industry continues to be rife, and many continue to be in denial about the issue,” Mr Durkin said. 

“The lack of representation of women in our industry remains at unacceptably low levels, and we will continue to struggle to connect with the public at large – and younger people in particular – until our industry reflects broader community expectations.”

Mitchell Hooke AM, Chair of Partners in Performance, said another consideration the industry must focus on is the mental health and wellbeing of employees.

“Our industry has always regarded occupational health and safety as our number one value and priority. But we've always looked at that through the physical aspects,” Mr Hooke said.

“When it comes to harassment, bullying and violence, we don’t need more legislation and laws to address that, because it’s a criminal activity. What we do need is changes in attitudes and behaviour, and you’re only going to get that when you build the kind of culture around your workplaces with that direct engagement. 

“The psychological health of our workers is absolutely critical to building a stronger industry.”

Deputy Chief Executive Officer of AREEA Tara Diamond added to this, saying the efforts of employers to create a more diverse workplace are ongoing.

“Since June 2022, when the Western Australian government released the ‘Enough is Enough Sexual Harassment Against Women in the FIFO Mining Industry’ report, many organisations have publicly released company specific workplace culture and behaviours audits that detail extensive recommendations as both a proactive step, but also a step to mitigate further risks to our industry’s to reputation,” Ms Diamond said.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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