Mining sector faces major skills shortage as environmental concerns deter Gen Z workers

Australia’s mining sector is facing a critical worker shortage that leaders say will stifle future projects if the industry cannot convince younger, more environmentally conscious generations to join its ranks.

The Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association (AREEA) released a report last week stating the mining industry would need 24,000 new workers over the next five years to uphold new projects across the country.

The report outlined that at least 107 projects, including coal, gold and critical minerals, were at risk of being impacted by the worker shortage.

“This is threatening the continuity of existing operations, resulting in temporary or permanent production downgrades, and driving other workforce issues including historic levels of staff turnover,” Mr Knott said.

AREEA’s head of policy and public relations Tom Reid said the challenges were significant.

“We don’t have enough people at present to continue operations at their full productivity level,” Mr Reid said.

But industry leaders said one of the biggest barriers to filling the jobs gap was winning over younger generations, specifically Generation Z, which was currently entering the workforce.

Recruiting a green generation 

A young man on a bike with the Mount Isa Mine in the background
Glencore’s Mount Isa Mine has 250 jobs it is struggling to fill.(ABC North West Queensland: Emily Bissland)

Queensland Resources Council (QRC) chief executive Ian Macfarlane said misinformation about the mining industry spread on social media had skewed perceptions among younger generations.

Some setbacks have included mining giant Glencore, which operates in Australia, pleading guilty recently to charges of bribery in South Africa.

Meanwhile, in May 2020, Rio Tinto destroyed culturally significant rock shelters at Juukan Gorge for the sake of expanding its iron ore mine.

Smoke billows over the city of Mount Isa.
Glencore’s Mount Isa Mine produces copper, lead and zinc.(ABC RN: David Lewis)

With a track record of abandoning rehabilitation projects, poisoning waterways, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, corruption, and a focus on profits, the mining industry has been forced to rebrand as environmental sustainability becomes a global focus.

With growing demand for coal and critical minerals, Mr Macfarlane said young people should not ignore the importance the sector played in economic development.

Blair Athol coal mine dragline in central Queensland in November 2012.
The Blair Athol coal mine in central Queensland has one of the largest deposits of coal in the world.(Supplied: Rio Tinto)

“We’ve launched a program directly targeted at the hearts and minds of Gen Z, saying to them: ‘don’t stand on the sidelines throwing rocks, get involved in this industry — you be part of the transition as the industry and the world moves to net zero by 2050’,” he said.

Mr Macfarlane hoped significant salaries and the promise of a transitioning industry would catch the eyes of Gen Z.

“There are highly paid jobs waiting for you in an industry that is doing everything it can to improve its environmental and social performance,” he said.

Mr Reid said targeting students was a priority.

“We need to start with vocational education in TAFE and those sorts of systems to ensure that the skills and qualifications that people are leaving institutions with matches up to what the industry needs,” Mr Reid said.

Mount Isa students learn about prospecting.(Supplied: QRC)

“The shortages in mining engineers, for instance, has been a long-term problem, and it’s only getting worse. So anything we can do to attract people into those sorts of STEM-based roles is also critical.”

Creativity and innovation crucial

Glencore Australia’s Mount Isa Mine is the second largest copper producer in Australia, next to BHP’s Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia.

Currently, it is advertising about 250 jobs that it is struggling to fill.

Dubbed the “new oil”, demand for copper has reached unprecedented highs, but global deposits are running out. 

An inquiry into sexual harassment of women in the FIFO mining industry has handed down its report to WA's parliament
Industry leaders say creative and innovative workers are needed in an industry going through change.(AAP: Dan Peled)

Chief operating officer for Glencore Australia’s copper assets Matt O’Neill said while attracting new people into the industry was important, the focus should be on encouraging innovation and creative thinking in a pivoting sector.

“Attracting people into our industry is not something we do very well,” Mr O’Neill told the ABC in May.

“And if we see that trend continuing, we’re going to lack the skills that are necessary to be able to do these things well.

“The deposits that we need to start talking about are going to be more challenging and the reason why we’re not already working on them today is because we need to get smarter and better at what we do.”

Mr Reid said the industry needed to work with government, unions and education providers to help fill the 24,000 positions required to uphold the future of the industry.

“By targeting students, focusing on STEM education and embracing creative solutions, we will solve this once-in-a-generation skills crisis,” he said.

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