Addressing the Australian skills shortage

In an effort to meet the demand for skilled workers in the mining sector, engineering and project delivery firm Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) has instigated a number of innovative solutions. And there are calls for Australia’s Vocational Education and Training system to be reviewed to ensure it meets the needs of the rapidly expanding minerals industry for a skilled workforce, according to the Minerals Council of Australia’s (MCA) Executive Director, Victorian Division, Chris Fraser.

SKM’s initiatives include establishing a skills training centre, and programs for Indigenous Australians, graduates and future leaders within the company. SKM is opening a dedicated Safety Learning Centre at Perth Domestic Airport, to provide a ‘one stop shop’ for safety and induction training services to a range of mining and industry clients. The centre will coordinate the provision of client-tailored, nationally-accredited induction, supervisor leadership, health and safety and skills competency programs required for deployment to site.

SKM General Manager, Mining and Metals, Mark Read, said the centre would fill a gap in the provision of comprehensive safety and induction training, utilising SKM’s innovative Visual Safety Methodology, which is a specialist knowledge sharing process, with participants using visualisation to prepare solutions while working interactively in groups. "This is a first for SKM and the industry and will serve as a model for future centres which we may look at rolling out globally," he said.

Already, mining and civil contracting service provider NRW Holdings has signed up for a suite of SKM’s safety and competency based workforce training, while companies including BHP Billiton Iron Ore, Rio Tinto and Chevron have expressed an interest in using the facility.

SKM is also making a concerted effort to enhance the skills of Indigenous Australians, through its Indigenous Employment Program, which includes cadetships for young people. Currently, SKM employs ten Indigenous cadets of which three are cadet engineers, offering training, workplace rotations, mentoring and financial incentives, while the cadets undertake undergraduate studies. Upon successful completion of the program, cadets have the opportunity to enter the SKM Graduate Development Program.

"We see it as our duty as a major employer and global company, to support initiatives for Indigenous economic development, education, social and heritage rights and mutually beneficial outcomes for Indigenous peoples, ourselves and our clients," Read said.

SKM’s Indigenous Program is managed by Jack Pearson, cousin of high profile Indigenous campaigner Noel Pearson. The SKM Graduate Program is open to graduates from many engineering disciplines, and provides support and encouragement for young graduates to reach their full potential within SKM.

But the skills development doesn’t stop there. SKM has also instigated a Future Leaders Program which identifies and supports potential leaders within the company to learn new skills to support them on their journey to leadership within the company. "In this way, we are ensuring we develop the skills of our people from the moment they start working with SKM, through their journey of growth and leadership with the company," Read said. "This not only benefits us, but also enhances our service delivery to clients."

For the MCA, Fraser said: "There is no shortage of applicants for unskilled positions in the industry but there is a critical shortage of skilled trades people, experienced miners, supervisors, technicians and professionals", delivering the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s Sir Willis Connelly oration in Melbourne. "The growth of our industry over the past few years has put the spotlight on the fundamental shortcomings of our national education and skills formation infrastructure", Fraser said.

"While the industry has experienced an overall 66% increase in employment over the five years to June 2007, the minerals industry will require an additional 70,000 workers by 2015 – 27,000 of these, will need to be tradespeople and 22,000 skilled operators with VET qualifications and skill sets."

Fraser welcomed the Labor Government’s commitment to making the national vocational education and training system a centrepiece of its agenda. "Building on existing initiatives, there is a need to continue to attract skilled people to the industry and for a further intensified focus on education and training to ensure that potential employees are aware of the pathways into the industry and have appropriate skills for entry". He outlined a four step government-business strategy to overcome the chronic shortage of skilled people in the minerals industry, which is expected to worsen as the industry continues to expand. These are:

  • Federal and State and Territory Governments take steps to improve literacy and numeracy of school leavers
  • Federal and State and Territory Governments continue the VET sector reform agenda at an accelerated pace to transform the VET sector so that it delivers competency based, market responsive, flexible, quality training to service the needs of the minerals industry in remote and regional Australia
  • Companies are encouraged to find innovative ways of fast tracking apprenticeship training
  • The minerals industry, in collaboration with Federal and State Governments review the possibility of establishing a network of VET level mining education and training centres in the principal mining regions across Australia.

"The initiatives outlined here will contribute to delivering the skilled workers so critical to the sustainability of the Australian minerals industry and the Australian economy. The strategy will require a co-ordinated program of reform by the Australian and State and Territory Governments working together with companies and the VET sector. Ensuring a suitably skilled workforce for the expanding minerals industry is crucial if all Australians are to benefit from the best opportunities experienced in the minerals industry in a generation", Fraser said.