It’s been nine months since Jason Nitz arrived with his wife and son to live and work in Indonesia.
In the far north of the Indonesia, Jason has a key role in developing a new underground gold mine for Newcrest on the island of Halmahera.
Halmahera Island is in the far north of the Indonesian Archipelago near to the original Spice Islands of old. The economy of the island is mainly derived from farming and fishing, though mining is adding to this through Newcrest’s mine and Weda Bay Nickel, an Indo-French mine located across the bay. Being on the boundary of two tectonic plates, Halmahera is abundant in volcanoes and prone to earthquakes – a perfect environment for epithermal gold.
To get to Halmahera each week, Jason flies from Manado in North Sulawesi on a Twin Otter, which takes about 80 minutes, landing at a purpose built airstrip right next to the mine. During the day there is anywhere up to 800 workers onsite, mainly local nationals from the surrounding villages.
A small percentage of nationals come from Manado, with a few from other areas around Indonesia like Java and Sumatra. There are some 50 expats working at the mine with about 30 on-site at any one time – 99% are Australian and most of these are in Superintendent or Manager roles, sharing their specialist skills to educate the national workforce.
Nearly all of these expats are on a four week on, two week off roster, with the majority returning home to Australia for their break, though some have homes in Bali and Balikpapan, with a few returning further afield to places like Ireland, the United States and New Zealand. A small number of expats like Jason are on a five days on, two days off roster as they live in Manado and can get home relatively easily.
There are two existing mines at site; Gosowong open pit and Kencana underground mine. The third mine, Toguraci, is currently being developed underground and this is where Jason works.
His role is to oversee the installation of new technology Newcrest has developed over the past few years in conjunction with an Australian specialist communications company. Most of this technology is based on wireless networks, a new concept for underground mining given the harsh environments found in most subsurface mines.
To date, underground mining at site has been a somewhat haphazard affair in terms of workforce and equipment management – with tunnels leading off in all directions making it difficult to manage where people are and what they’re doing. Wireless underground networks enable mine sites to establish greater control through the ability to visualise people and equipment in real time. Added to this is the ability to schedule the shift in real-time using the wireless network and software based on a mining simulator. Jason has a secondary task here as well, mainly relating to the commissioning of new underground mining equipment technology.
Jason is part of the Projects and Development Group whose main task is to deliver all the projects around site – these range from installing new tailings lines to constructing new buildings, as well as delivering a mill upgrade and developing a new mine (Toguraci) – anything that isn’t operations but needs doing is the remit of the Projects and Development Group.
As if long working hours and life in a new country weren’t enough to keep Jason occupied, he has started a Graduate Diploma in Mining Engineering with the University of Ballarat via distance education. Jason’s accumulated knowledge of mining can now be applied through formal study.
So what attracts a young professional and their family to such a remote location on an expatriate assignment? Jason tells in his own words.
Tell us about your role, site and location, and how the opportunity came about.
My current role involves managing a technology implementation project for a range of underground technologies we’ve been developing for several years – all are new developments for underground mining which will come together to give greater visibility in real-time. It’s something that underground mining has been lacking to date and will bring it in line with the open pit. We decided to rollout the project at our new mine in Indonesia mainly as it was at the right early development stage, able to handle the interference that comes with rolling out new technology without us getting in the way too much. The management team here were very supportive of the rollout and could see the benefits of our project once completed, so they were only too willing to let us use the site as the first rollout. The opportunity for me to come to Indonesia came about from my offering to go – if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s not the first place people would readily offer to live so it’s rare you get asked. I could see that onsite presence was required for the project to be successful so I offered to move the family here for a year. The company jumped at the chance and it’s been a great experience for all the family, not just myself.
Tell us about your career up until that point.
My career in mining started in IT of all places with Rio Tinto. My wife and I decided we wanted to get out of the rat race in Brisbane and started looking for IT jobs in the country. Soon after we started looking, along came Rio Tinto with a position at Ranger mine in the Northern Territory – I wasn’t even looking at mining in particular, though I’d got a taste of it working for Mincom in Brisbane. We jumped at the opportunity when it was offered and had three years living in Jabiru in Kakadu National Park which we enjoyed – so much so we went there twice with Rio Tinto. After a few different moves with Rio Tinto around the country, it was off to BHP Billiton in Western Australia for a short period before moving to Newcrest at the height of the boom in 2008. During this period my career and interests veered from pure IT to more operations and technology. It was the start of the age where technology had a place to play in mining operations, not just in the offices. Most large mining equipment was getting fitted out with technology and the amount of information that you could get from it was generally recognised as being beneficial, but not a lot was known about merging the two. This is where operational technology (OT) has diverged from information technology (IT). It’s becoming a branch in itself. At Newcrest I teamed up with a mining manager in 2009 that had like-minded ideas, and the rest they say, is history.
What was it about the opportunity to live and work in Indonesia that was most appealing?
Like any overseas posting, it’s all about being prepared to learn a new culture, try new food, and pick up some of the language. I’d spent four years in the Navy many years ago and enjoyed my time in and around South East Asia and always thought that if the opportunity ever arose to live there, I’d take it. Now that I have a family, it added another dimension to the appeal as they would get to experience it as well. My wife and I decided it would only add to our son’s life experiences. He’s certainly enjoyed his time here learning a new language and being educated at a local school where he is one of very few expats. I’d been to Manado a few times previously and always thought it’d be a great place to live – it’s a little more traditional than places like Jakarta and Bali, which gives you a greater experience rather than being surrounded by a large amount of expats on holiday. It forces you to integrate with the local community more.
What have been the professional highlights working as an expat?
Working back at a mine again has been great as I’m not really one for the corporate office environment. The fact that it’s on a remote island in the Indonesian Archipelago has added an extra dimension to that. To fly to work each week and pass several volcanoes - some of which have erupted during my time here - just makes you realise that it’s a special place – something out of the norm and far removed from an office in Brisbane. Being a member of a small team developing a new mine has been a great experience. Whilst I’m not directly involved with that in terms of my project, it’s great to get involved where I can and to see it all come together - the progress made even over my short 12 months here has been amazing. I became interested so much in the construction and mining process that I decided to use my spare time to study Mining Engineering with the University of Ballarat via distance education. I’ve picked up knowledge about mining over the years and thought it best I use the spare time of an evening to study at a postgraduate level in order to bring it all together. If you’re going to attempt to improve mining processes and the use of equipment, you first have to understand how it’s currently done – that was my reasoning for the study which I’m enjoying very much. It’s all new to me and I like learning new things – keeps the grey matter alive.
What have been the personal highlights living as an expat?
There are many highlights and experiences associated with living in another country, as you can imagine. Learning about a new culture is always interesting especially when comparing to how things are done back home. It gives you a whole new perspective and ideas on how to do things differently when you return. Life is quite laid back in Indonesia, especially where we are, being a regional small city. Having to adapt to the Indonesian time scale is the hardest, though living in the Northern Territory for a few years was good practise! Life moves at a slower pace here and due to that, things don’t always happen in the time you’d expect. Patience is definitely high on the list of requirements when living in Indonesia. I had every intention of learning the language as best I could, but alas, even the best laid plans sometimes fail – I know just enough to greet people and hold a very basic conversation. As Manado is generally regarded as one of the top diving spots in the world, I thought it might be time to get a diving certification. I’d done diving before in the Navy, but not the common recreational type diving (as it was more specialised diving for the military). I spent two weekends learning to dive with one-on-one instruction, something you’d never get back in Australia, and since receiving my certification I’ve dived at least 12 times on some pretty spectacular sites. I’m quite lucky to have some of the world’s best diving on my doorstep within an hour’s boat ride.
What have you done to integrate with the local community whilst there?
It’s not a large expat community in Manado so you’re forced to become part of the community regardless. We don’t live in an expat compound but in an estate which houses nationals so we interact with them on a daily basis, especially my wife. She has many national friends who are all interested in learning about our lives as we are of them. We’ve had invites to several parties in our estate which is always interesting – the Indonesians know how to put on a spread, especially when it comes to food. And if you don’t like Karaoke, you’ve come to the wrong place! My wife does her shopping at the local shopping centre which is much like back in Australia, though the range and variety of food and vegetables is different. You can generally find some items from back home, like cheese, biscuits and cereals, but be prepared to pay for them! In relation to the community around the mine site, there is a large corporate social responsibility program mainly as the area is surrounded by many small villages. Simple projects like providing clean water and increasing food production goes a long way to improving the quality of life in these villages. Many of the locals work at the mine or at least benefit directly from services associated with the mine.
What have been the key challenges? Were these expected?
There have been many challenges with moving here though most were expected. It takes about two months to find your feet and get into a new way of life. Learning enough of the language to get by in the basic daily tasks is the first priority, though most people know a little English and generally hand signals get your message across. One of the big challenges was in relation to our son’s schooling – cultural and language differences make for a different style of education but overall we think he’s coped fairly well. Not having access to some of the typical Australian goods you’re used to at home has made it difficult at times. They are usually the first things we ask people to bring when they say they are coming for a visit. Vegemite being near the top of the list! There certainly hasn’t been any challenges that have made us wish we could go home – all were easily overcome through some solution.
How important has company support been during this time?
Having the support of the company, especially during the first few months is important. Being able to have someone help you through basic tasks such as opening a bank account and learning how to do things differently is important. Having your place all set up for the day you arrive is a big bonus and we were very lucky in that respect – we literally moved in and only had to buy a few things we needed to make it feel like home. Overall, we’ve been lucky in that respect as the support has been there when we need it. Once you find your feet though it becomes second nature and the need for company support eventually becomes less.
Is there a particular type of person best suited to expat life in your experience?
I don’t think there is a certain type of person better suited to expat life, but having some adventurous characteristics and realistic expectations will go a long way to fitting in and enjoying the experience. Patience is definitely top of the list for countries where the pace of life is slow. In Australia if something takes one hour to do, here it could take three to four hours, possibly a day. Having realistic expectations is the best way to approach things – the way of life here is very different to Australia and people need to realise that before they come. Having a visit before moving to another country is a must and if you get the chance to have three to four days, take it. It’ll give you a good idea of what life will be like long term.
What would you advise others who are either seeking or considering an expat role should consider before they make the decision?
Discuss any possible move with family or others who have done it before, not necessarily people who’ve been to the same country, but just expats in general, as they’ll give you a good idea of what to consider. Research the country and place where you’ll live online – there are always forums on the Internet that will give you other people’s opinions on various things. But don’t take everything people say as being true and correct – everyone has different opinions, many preconceived, which may make their experiences different to yours. Use it as a guide only. Quiz the company on benefits offered to expats and weigh up how they will work in your personal circumstances. For countries like Indonesia, access to emergency medical services is important and we’re lucky the company has that well covered with an international medical provider, complete with their own jet.
Where is your next post?
It’s back to Brisbane for us later this year where I’ll return to the office to continue working on the project but from a different aspect. I’ll still travel back to Indonesia on a FIFO roster for a few months though, which will be a good balance after spending a year here. We’ll be sad to leave but it’ll be exciting to return home again as even the simple things we used to take for granted will seem like new again.
Would you consider another expat posting in the future?
Absolutely! We’ve always said we’d be happy to consider any offer to be an expat provided it meets our basic needs which mainly revolve around schooling for our son now that he is getting into a higher grade. There are places we’d like to go and cultures we’d like to experience, so if ever the offer came along, we’d give it some thought. There are more and more locations around the world that are becoming mining hubs that year's ago were relatively unheard of. These places offer such an exciting experience that you’d be mad to turn something down provided it was right for you. Any expat posting is bound to give you a range of experiences which makes life richer – visiting a country is one thing, living there for a few years is a totally different experience. I know I’ve certainly learnt a lot being here and our son will remember his time here for the rest of his life - both very positive reasons to consider being an expat.
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