If we are to believe what we read in the newspapers, the mining and resources sector has never had it so good. While other Australian industries have suffered as a result of the GFC and the world's subsequent economic hangover, mining companies are living the champagne lifestyle thanks largely to China's insatiable appetite for growth.
You could almost be forgiven for believing that mining companies couldn't fail to make money right now, regardless of the quality of their assets or management practices. Of course it's an overly simplistic view; one that fails to capture the complexity of the dilemmas facing the industry. But it's a populist line that makes good copy for newspapers and which can always be relied on to spark debate among politicians.
The reality is that mining organisations face a rising cost base. Government taxes and royalties have increased. The costs of services, supplies and essential heavy machinery are on the up. Mining companies are being hit by the same increases in power and energy costs that are squeezing every other company in Australia. And, perhaps even more so than in any other industry, there's the problem of labour.
You can't grow without the right people
To achieve the growth required of the sector, Australian mining companies need more skilled people. New projects can't be undertaken without the additional talent to staff them. Yet with a widening skills gap, finding new, suitable staff is becoming harder and harder. The people just don't exist.
The 2011 interim report into the resources sector prepared by Skills Australia highlighted this when it noted shortages in a variety of roles including geologists, mine deputies and surveyors. Of particular concern is the difficulty in filling senior roles where several years experience may be required.
The practice of FIFO is probably the best known tactic used by companies trying to counteract the shortage. Another tactic being experimented with is greater automation to reduce the need for labour. While this may help to cut headcount on some sites, it is unlikely to replace the need for skilled employees. Some organisations even go as far as conducting 'hiring roadshows' overseas in order to attract talent.
Workforce planning is crucial and the first step is to understand what your needs are now and into the future. This requires taking a long-term view beginning with an examination of your existing talent. Map out training and career paths that will help staff develop the additional skills and gain the experience that you are going to need in the years ahead. If you haven't already done so, talk to key staff who may be nearing retirement.
Try to negotiate flexible, ongoing roles for them with the company so that you can retain their expertise as long as possible. Get them involved in mentoring and encourage them to share their knowledge. At the same time, don't neglect your pipeline of future talent. Develop close relationships with educational institutions, professional associations and industry groups.Don't restrict your networking to the mining industry either.
Engineers, for example, can be found in a great many other industries. When competing for highly sought-after talent, it pays to spread a broad net.
...and get creative
One way is to use an executive shortlisting solution. Tertiary enrolments, population statistics and demographic studies all confirm that the global skills shortage will be with us for some time. Companies that don't want to be constrained need to become more diligent, more creative and more opportunistic about talent spotting.
Keeping a permanent watchful eye on available and upcoming talent, and planning how to nurture and develop that talent might just make all the difference.
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