A shift is occurring in the WA mining sector. The lucratively high salaries that once drew in scores of applications is no longer enough to attract our newest generations of workers. In past years, roughly 300 mining engineering students graduated from universities across the country, but that number is expected to plummet to a disquieting 50 graduates in the near future.
The drop in enrolments started back in 2012, after the commodity prices for iron ore and coal began to dwindle. Despite a new boom on the state’s horizon, the possibility of walking out of tertiary education and into jobs paying $100 000 a year isn’t enough to lure new students into the industry. Fears are now sparking of an imminent skills shortage, made worse by 2017’s abolition of 457 work visa and removal of mining professions from skill migration occupation lists, leaving it more difficult for companies to hire foreign workers.
How it happened
During the last mining boom, WA sites brought in workers not only from all over the country, but over the world, as there were mass applications and plenty of work to go around. Once it ended, however, those workers moved on and became settled elsewhere, either on other sites or new industries. With the current difficulties surrounding foreign workers, previous employees happy in jobs elsewhere, and new students choosing industries outside of the STEM fields (sciences, technologies, engineering and mathematics), the skills shortage could lead to a demand for higher salaries, simply to attract workers.
Where we are
Just like with every other mining boom, now that confidence has returned to the industry, a large group of companies have decided on diving in head first with their operations, all at the same time. With skilled workers in such short supply across the entire board, elevated salary increases to attract them, and a multitude of competing companies on more projects than ever (i.e. the surge in interest surrounding WA’s vast lithium deposits) a bidding war is likely inevitable.
Why we need to change
WA companies are trying to hire locally, but the supply just isn’t meeting the demand. New and innovative ways of attracting entrants into STEM subjects are needed from governments, TAFEs, universities, and the industries themselves. This should start with the subversion of outdated perceptions claiming the mining industry is unclean, over demanding and unstable work that is only open to the men in our community. People from every walk of life can benefit with this new surge of demand and earning potential, and that should be the main focus when our newest generations are considering career choices.
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