Booming Mining’s No Longer the Pits

EVERY time Sue Gogilis starts her shift driving the company truck she gives her steering wheel a good rub with a few disinfectant wipes.

Gogilis, a 34-year-old mother of two, was a dental assistant until last May. Now she drives a mammoth dump truck at one of Rio Tinto’s iron ore mines, hauling 230 tonnes of rock and dirt across the scorching Pilbara region in Australia’s outback.

“They need the bodies,” she said. “And so if there’s a body, they don’t care if it’s male or female as long as it can drive the truck.”

From the pits of Australia to the coalfields of Wyoming, mining companies like Rio Tinto are hunting for people to address a dire shortage of workers. A decade ago, with prices slumping, the sense of mining as a sunset industry left it with a workforce with grey hair under its hard hats. But these days, the industry is struggling to meet burgeoning global demand for iron, copper, and other key commodities.

Now, mothers like Gogilis, former math teachers, and even Detroit car workers are being lured into mining by impressive salaries, housing, and educational benefits, helping to transform mining from what was once a dead-end job into an avenue of advancement.

“We’re looking at factors like remuneration, but more importantly we’re looking at the softer side,” said Russell King, who leads the business development group at Anglo American, the London-based mining giant. “We’re making sure people feel loved.”

Skills shortages have become a common feature of the global economy, particularly in ageing countries. Nurses are scarce; engineers, too. What makes the mining industry’s shortages so severe is that the commodities boom caught it more or less by surprise.

“The industry was suffering a depression, and the best and brightest didn’t join,” said Marcus Randolph, the chief organisation development officer at BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company.

As commodity prices languished, students pursued better-paying careers elsewhere. Mining schools shrank. The average age of a production worker in mining crept up to 50.
Then came the China economic boom, and India’s. The Minerals Council of Australia, in a recent report, estimated that by 2015 Australia alone would need 70,000 employees on top of the 120,000 it has now to keep up with demand.

Mining recruiters say that industry salaries have climbed 20 per cent in the last two years. Yet mines are so short of workers that projects are being delayed as production costs rise.
Even the recent slide in commodities prices has failed to dent the boom.
The shortage is hastening the transformation of the industry.
“Ten years ago, we had one of the worst industrial safety records in Australia,” said Mitchell Hooke, chief executive of the Minerals Council of Australia. “Today we are the best.”
Yet the old image endures. “Mining?” said Russ Eason, who worked in Michigan’s auto parts industry for 30 years until he was laid off in 2005 at the age of 58. “That was guys with little hats and little carbide lamps on their heads walking around with picks chipping away.”
At a local job fair, Eason stopped at the booth of P&H Mining Equipment, which makes the giant shovels used in mines. Workers like Eason with compatible skills from auto factories and other industries are highly coveted by mining companies. Eason now works for one of P&H’s subsidiaries in Wyoming’s coal country.
With modernisation has come increasing mechanisation. Many mining workers nowadays need education levels and skills more common to urban white-collar professionals.
“You can’t just come out of the paddock and pick up a pick and shovel and go down in the mine,” Hooke said.
That need for higher skills makes life even harder for mining companies that are venturing further afield in search of ore.
Because of the voracious demand for their output, mines are kept running 24 hours a day. Miners typically work 12-hour shifts, usually for two weeks straight, followed by a week off. To coax miners to such remote sites, the industry has developed what is called the fly-in, fly-out job, in which the company flies employees to the mine and back out again when their shift is over.
That kind of schedule suits Brian Okely, a 42-year-old from Western Australia. Okely spent 12 years as a telephone repairman until he learned that he could double his pay in mining. In November, Okely started repairing trucks at one of Rio’s Pilbara mines. Best of all, he said, he gets a full week off to spend quality time with his wife and three children. “Family’s more important than money,” he said.
Still, attrition and divorce rates among miners remain high. A study last year by Macquarie Research and the Australasian Institute of Mining found turnover among mine workers was as high as 25 per cent. “They work long hours and they need people who are willing to travel a lot,” said Bruce Elliott, who recruits for the resources industry at Korn/Ferry in Sydney. “Young people will do it out of university. But then they get to a point where they say ‘I don’t want to travel now’.”
So companies are reaching out to young graduates like Avischen Moodley, a South African who was planning to work for an insurance company after earning his actuarial degree until Anglo American lured him with the promise of rotating through three jobs on a new continent over five years.
Mining companies also offer scholarships to potential employees. Anglo American, for example, is paying to put 1000 South Africans through universities this year.
Immigration is another solution. Australia is creating new visas for temporary workers, enabling companies to recruit from countries like the Philippines.
Few immigrants are likely to want to settle in a place like the Pilbara, where summer temperatures routinely rise above 46 degrees. Ultimately, many companies say, the challenge is to train workers from communities around the mines. In the Pilbara, that means finding workers among local Aborigines. Rio Tinto offers courses teaching basic literacy, part of its aim to raise the Aboriginal portion of its workforce to 15 per cent.
Until it does, the company does its best to make conditions acceptable to imported workers like Anthony Dekuyer, who left his job as a maths teacher in Perth last year at the age of 48 to start driving a truck for Rio Tinto. While the region may be bleak, Dekuyer’s accommodations at the mine sound more like a desert resort.
“It’s quite well fitted out,” he said. In addition to the gym and tennis courts, there is a 25-metre pool, he said. The rooms are air-conditioned, with free phones and internet access. Better still, Dekuyer’s wife works for the mine, so the two fly back and forth to work together from their home in Perth.
Women have become especially sought-after in the once macho world of mining, particularly as truck drivers like Gogilis. Since they tend to drive the big trucks with a gentler touch, they exert less wear and tear on the tyres, which are also in short supply. The number of women in Rio’s ranks has risen from just over 11 per cent in 2000 to 15 per cent.
Rio offers working mothers flexible schedules so they can go home to their children at night. Gogilis now alternates six days on and six days off to spend time with her daughters, age 15 and 10.
“I’m setting an example that as a girl you don’t have to do the mainstream thing,” she said.
Even the recent slide in commodities prices has failed to dent the boom.
The shortage is hastening the transformation of the industry.

“Ten years ago, we had one of the worst industrial safety records in Australia,” said Mitchell Hooke, chief executive of the Minerals Council of Australia. “Today we are the best.”
Yet the old image endures. “Mining?” said Russ Eason, who worked in Michigan’s auto parts industry for 30 years until he was laid off in 2005 at the age of 58. “That was guys with little hats and little carbide lamps on their heads walking around with picks chipping away.”

At a local job fair, Eason stopped at the booth of P&H Mining Equipment, which makes the giant shovels used in mines. Workers like Eason with compatible skills from auto factories and other industries are highly coveted by mining companies. Eason now works for one of P&H’s subsidiaries in Wyoming’s coal country.

With modernisation has come increasing mechanisation. Many mining workers nowadays need education levels and skills more common to urban white-collar professionals.

“You can’t just come out of the paddock and pick up a pick and shovel and go down in the mine,” Hooke said.

That need for higher skills makes life even harder for mining companies that are venturing further afield in search of ore.

Because of the voracious demand for their output, mines are kept running 24 hours a day. Miners typically work 12-hour shifts, usually for two weeks straight, followed by a week off. To coax miners to such remote sites, the industry has developed what is called the fly-in, fly-out job, in which the company flies employees to the mine and back out again when their shift is over.
That kind of schedule suits Brian Okely, a 42-year-old from Western Australia. Okely spent 12 years as a telephone repairman until he learned that he could double his pay in mining. In November, Okely started repairing trucks at one of Rio’s Pilbara mines. Best of all, he said, he gets a full week off to spend quality time with his wife and three children. “Family’s more important than money,” he said.

Still, attrition and divorce rates among miners remain high. A study last year by Macquarie Research and the Australasian Institute of Mining found turnover among mine workers was as high as 25 per cent. “They work long hours and they need people who are willing to travel a lot,” said Bruce Elliott, who recruits for the resources industry at Korn/Ferry in Sydney. “Young people will do it out of university. But then they get to a point where they say ‘I don’t want to travel now’.”
So companies are reaching out to young graduates like Avischen Moodley, a South African who was planning to work for an insurance company after earning his actuarial degree until Anglo American lured him with the promise of rotating through three jobs on a new continent over five years.
Mining companies also offer scholarships to potential employees. Anglo American, for example, is paying to put 1000 South Africans through universities this year.
Immigration is another solution. Australia is creating new visas for temporary workers, enabling companies to recruit from countries like the Philippines.
Few immigrants are likely to want to settle in a place like the Pilbara, where summer temperatures routinely rise above 46 degrees. Ultimately, many companies say, the challenge is to train workers from communities around the mines. In the Pilbara, that means finding workers among local Aborigines. Rio Tinto offers courses teaching basic literacy, part of its aim to raise the Aboriginal portion of its workforce to 15 per cent.
Until it does, the company does its best to make conditions acceptable to imported workers like Anthony Dekuyer, who left his job as a maths teacher in Perth last year at the age of 48 to start driving a truck for Rio Tinto. While the region may be bleak, Dekuyer’s accommodations at the mine sound more like a desert resort.
“It’s quite well fitted out,” he said. In addition to the gym and tennis courts, there is a 25-metre pool, he said. The rooms are air-conditioned, with free phones and internet access. Better still, Dekuyer’s wife works for the mine, so the two fly back and forth to work together from their home in Perth.
Women have become especially sought-after in the once macho world of mining, particularly as truck drivers like Gogilis. Since they tend to drive the big trucks with a gentler touch, they exert less wear and tear on the tyres, which are also in short supply. The number of women in Rio’s ranks has risen from just over 11 per cent in 2000 to 15 per cent.
Rio offers working mothers flexible schedules so they can go home to their children at night. Gogilis now alternates six days on and six days off to spend time with her daughters, age 15 and 10.
“I’m setting an example that as a girl you don’t have to do the mainstream thing,” she said.
So companies are reaching out to young graduates like Avischen Moodley, a South African who was planning to work for an insurance company after earning his actuarial degree until Anglo American lured him with the promise of rotating through three jobs on a new continent over five years.

Mining companies also offer scholarships to potential employees. Anglo American, for example, is paying to put 1000 South Africans through universities this year.

Immigration is another solution. Australia is creating new visas for temporary workers, enabling companies to recruit from countries like the Philippines.

Few immigrants are likely to want to settle in a place like the Pilbara, where summer temperatures routinely rise above 46 degrees. Ultimately, many companies say, the challenge is to train workers from communities around the mines. In the Pilbara, that means finding workers among local Aborigines. Rio Tinto offers courses teaching basic literacy, part of its aim to raise the Aboriginal portion of its workforce to 15 per cent.

Until it does, the company does its best to make conditions acceptable to imported workers like Anthony Dekuyer, who left his job as a maths teacher in Perth last year at the age of 48 to start driving a truck for Rio Tinto. While the region may be bleak, Dekuyer’s accommodations at the mine sound more like a desert resort.

“It’s quite well fitted out,” he said. In addition to the gym and tennis courts, there is a 25-metre pool, he said. The rooms are air-conditioned, with free phones and internet access. Better still, Dekuyer’s wife works for the mine, so the two fly back and forth to work together from their home in Perth.

Women have become especially sought-after in the once macho world of mining, particularly as truck drivers like Gogilis. Since they tend to drive the big trucks with a gentler touch, they exert less wear and tear on the tyres, which are also in short supply. The number of women in Rio’s ranks has risen from just over 11 per cent in 2000 to 15 per cent.

Rio offers working mothers flexible schedules so they can go home to their children at night. Gogilis now alternates six days on and six days off to spend time with her daughters, age 15 and 10.

“I’m setting an example that as a girl you don’t have to do the mainstream thing,” she said.

Wayne Arnold and Heather Timmons, smh.com.au