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How do we nurture the future of the Australian minerals industry?

Brendan Howard FAusIMM, Head of Technical Excellence, Rio Tinto Head of Technical Excellence
· 1000 words, 4 min read

How do we nurture the future of the Australian minerals industry.jpg

It’s easy to think the core competitive advantage of any mining company is the quality of the ore in the ground.

But while the tonnes, grade and mineralogy of what’s in the ground is fixed, there is no limit to the potential value a talented workforce can create in converting the resources into products. People make all the difference.

So why isn’t our industry as focused on securing our future talent supply as on finding the next high-grade mineral deposit?

During the past 20 years, the Australian minerals industry’s workforce has trebled in size to around 300,000 people (ABS, 2023). This expansion reflects the tremendous growth in demand for our products – which are used everywhere in modern life and are essential for the energy transition.

However, the supply of the industry’s core technical professionals, such as mining engineers, geologists and metallurgists, has been trending in the opposite direction. Tertiary enrolments are well below current and projected demand. Since 2015, mining engineering and geoscience graduate numbers have declined by 75 per cent and 40 per cent respectively (Knights 2019; AGC 2022), even though commodity prices have been mostly buoyant. This suggests a break in the longstanding correlation between commodity prices and Australian mining school enrolments.

Normally the fundamentals of supply and demand, along with commodity prices, would lead to a market response to close the gap in enrolments. However, despite offering some of the highest graduate starting salaries – indeed the highest average salaries in Australia – the supply gap persists. And when you factor in the anticipated additional demand growth from minerals required for the energy transition, there is a clear supply and demand imbalance.

There are many reasons cited for the decline, but solid quantitative data is scarce. Surveys of tertiary students conducted with support of Minerals Council of Australia and Australian Institute of Geoscientists (Welstead and Allen, 2023) point to a combination of:

  • a lack of understanding about geology and mining among school leavers and the general public
  • a lack of awareness about career opportunities in these fields
  • concerns about the impact of mining on the environment
  • concerns about the culture of the mining industry – only 15 per cent of respondents had a good impression of the industry’s culture.

Much work needs to be done to address issues such as those identified in the Western Australia government’s “Enough is Enough” report on sexual harassment against women in the FIFO mining industry. Indeed at Rio Tinto we have been open about the need for change within our own organisation and since early 2022 have been implementing a range of measures to create a safe, respectful and inclusive workplace. 

The student perception research also points to the need for a radical re-think of the way we approach earth science in our education system and to look beyond the conventional talent sources. So what can we do?

1. Improve industry workforce supply-demand models 

These models need to project not only what is happening with minerals demand, but also how technology is changing the nature of work for professionals in the industry, thus impacting the required supply. This will help to build an understanding of the skills required and help education providers to adapt.

2. Genuine industry collaboration 

The supply challenge is structural. No single company or institution can tackle it alone. In fact, well-intentioned efforts by individual players serves to dilute scarce resources, leading to conflicting signals to educators. We need forums that bring industry, educators and government together. Collectively, we must adopt a long-term perspective, consistent with the investment time horizons of the industry.

3. Create a talent ‘red thread’ 

We must build and continually invest in a consistent science curriculum that spans primary, secondary and tertiary education. Exposure to earth sciences in primary school will mean little if it is not continued in secondary school.

4. Scale proven interventions

When one of our own has success, we must learn from it and leverage it for the benefit of the whole industry. For example, BHP has been running an effective vacation industry exposure program (providing site-based exposure and education for generalist first-year university science and engineering students). Through the program, 85 per cent of participating students either changed or maintained their study choices towards mining (BHP, 2023). Program demand far outstrips available places, so this initiative could be scaled up to an industry level.

5. Genuine commitment to education system innovation 

In recent years there has been much discussion about ideas such as stackable micro credentials, such as the Future Tails program, or trade-to-engineer education pathways. The unfortunate truth is discussions have not translated to enough action across the whole industry. We remain reliant on traditional four-year university undergraduate programs for talent. Education providers will want to see real commitment from their industry ‘customers’ to de-risk future investment in new programs.

6. Broaden the catchment of potential employees 

Australians emerging from a traditional four-year university degree will always be an important source of talent, but there are other sources that warrant more focused attention. Some examples could include bridging programs for engineers and scientists from adjacent industries such as construction or petrochemicals, or parents returning to work from extended parental leave.

As an industry, we are known for managing risk. But we need to do more to manage the risk of the diminishing supply of technical talent. We need focused attention and investment to turn this around and convert this risk into a value-creating opportunity.   


ABS, Labour Force Survey, Detailed, February 2023

Australian Geoscience Council (AGC) Australian Geoscience Tertiary education profile 2003-2021, November 2022

BHP, Resourcing Your Future (Briefing Session for MCA 28 June 2023)

Community Development and Justice Standing Committee of the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia, Enough is enough report, June 2022

Elizabeth Broderick & Co, Report into Workplace Culture at Rio Tinto, 2022

Knights, Peter. F, Short term supply and demand of graduate mining engineers in Australia, Mineral Economics, Oct 2019

Welstead, I. and Allen, S. Perceptions of the Mining Industry and Pathways into Geosciences, Presented at Minerals Council Australia, Minerals Week September 2023

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