Australian mining’s macho image worsens pain of labour shortage

Without change, the outlook is grim. Enrolments in mining engineering courses across Australia have fallen to roughly 30 this year from more than 250 during the last boom a half decade ago. — Reuters photo

MELBOURNE: When the song ‘Eagle Rock’ played at a bar in an outback Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie late one night, a dozen young men scattered around a pool table dropped their trousers and heartily sang along in their underwear.

Later that night, they piled behind the counter of the bar attached to the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM), singing an anthem that began, “We are engineers,” and finished with an obscene description of how they treat women.

The scenes, in the background of an industry conference, cut against a hard reality the sector faces: a dearth of skilled applicants, and a workforce hurting for diversity and struggling to hire women.

“If (the mining industry) could attract more women, it could go a long way to helping any future skills shortage,” said Paul Cooper, regional chief executive of mining for service provider Sodexo, which is a key supplier to the industry and whose workforce is almost half women.

Without change, the outlook is grim.

Enrolments in mining engineering courses across Australia have fallen to roughly 30 this year from more than 250 during the last boom a half decade ago.

“We’ve solved crazier problems than this. This is seriously not hard if people have the will,” said Sam Retallack, head of hiring at miner Independence Group.

It will require a “big philosophical shift,” but miners must offer more flexible working conditions to attract the next generation of workers, she said.

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The conversation is echoing around the industry.

A WASM director, just hours before the carousing in Kalgoorlie, had delivered a pointed address about how the industry must change its testosterone-charged reputation.

“Mining has a dirty image,” mining engineer Sabina Shugg of the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Mining Innovation Hub told a packed hall.

“You can have a lot of talk about intent, but really it’s all about outcomes.”

Curtin University, of which WASM is a part, said it promotes equality and diversity, and actively works to enhance opportunities for women, particularly in mining.

Curtin said that it did not organise the event, did not receive any complaints and could not verify the reported behaviour.

“Curtin is very disappointed to receive this report of disrespectful behaviour,” it said in a statement.

Even top global miner BHP Billiton , which has set an “ambitious, aspirational goal” of achieving gender balance globally by 2025, fell short of its yearly target, raising the proportion of female employees by 1.9 per cent to 22.4 per cent.

In senior management positions, however, the proportion of women slipped by 1 percentage point. — Reuters

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