Australian mining's macho image worsens pain of labour shortage
* Industry faces shortage of specialised workers
* Only about 30 students enrolled in mining engineering in
* Women account for 16 percent of Australian mining
* Mining has lowest percentage of women of any Australian
(Adds details on incentives for women 26-27th paragraphs)
By Melanie Burton
MELBOURNE, Sept 21 (Reuters) - 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
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
"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.
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
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
"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 percent to
22.4 percent. In senior management positions, however, the
proportion of women slipped by 1 percentage point.
"These results show we are making progress, although we did
not achieve the 3 percent annual growth to which we aspire," BHP
said in its annual report on Tuesday.
Large-scale layoffs after commodity busts in recent years
and an environmentally challenged image have also harmed
mining's reputation among potential hires, industry sources
Yet mining is hiring, with a big uptick in exploration
investment. The industry spent A$547 million ($391.76 million)
in the three months ending in June, an increase of 6.8 percent
over the previous quarter and a jump of 28.9 percent for the
year, according to Australia's Bureau of Statistics.
Part of the issue is the industry's marketing, which appeals
to masculine stereotypes, said Gabriela Love, a mining engineer
at ASX-listed Newcrest and chairwoman of Women in
Mining and Resources Victoria.
"Mining is marketed as dirty and dull. You think of BHP and
its ads are all trucks and high-vis gear; that's painting the
industry in a certain way," she said. "But now we're in a
digital age, with robotics, big data, high tech. Mining is all
BHP declined to comment about its marketing.
Mining is the most male dominated-industry in Australia,
with women making up 16 percent of the sector's national
workforce for the past decade, according to government data on
"The sector faces an ongoing challenge to attract and retain
the substantial number of additional women required to boost
diversity and take advantage of a significant untapped
workforce," the Department of Industry said in a report.
Highly specialised positions that require workers to travel
to a remote location for "fly in, fly out" work can be more
difficult for parents in particular.
One geotechnical engineer, among the most sought-after
specialisations, was laid off from a mining major last year as
she prepared to return from maternity leave.
During her pregnancy, her manager had told her that if he
gave her flexible working conditions, he'd have to give them to
"I was a senior engineer wanting to stay involved in the
industry. When I needed the support, I found myself out of a
job. I felt disillusioned with the industry and the company."
Offering the option to work remotely or on secondment in
consulting from a big city would benefit workers and the
company, she said.
To be sure, incremental change is rippling through the
industry. Sodexo has flexible working conditions, incentives
tied to diversity targets and a women's mentorship program that
it credits for helping retain female workers.
Elsewhere, miners cite scholarships for women and fast-track
potential in a well-paid career as enticements. Majors Rio
Tinto and BHP have set up remote work centres
in Perth so fewer employees needed to be at mine sites.
Among other measures, Rio has also introduced a global paid
parental leave standard, while BHP is moving to replace heavy
physical labour with robots, and is working with suppliers to
redesign equipment so it is more ergonomic for women.
"I think that the industry has a reputation that may not be
well deserved in today's world," BHP's chief technology officer,
Diane Jurgens, told Reuters.
"I think it's a lot to do with the perceptions of the
industry. We need to change that," she said.
($1 = 1.3963 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Gerry Doyle)
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