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Special Report: Hard truths of a miner's life

By Tanya Ryan-Segger

For those with experience, there's still money to be made, but not without sacrifices, writes Tanya Ryan-Segger.

The mining industry employs about 250,000 people in Australia, and its workers are, on average, the highest paid across all sectors. But it's not all good news. Although there are still some skills shortages at many mining sites across the country, landing a job isn't always easy, and once employed, there are often sacrifices to be made in return for the big bucks.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, mining employees make an average of $2206 a week - the highest weekly earnings of all Australian workers. This fact, along with a belief that there are endless employment opportunities, has attracted many jobseekers to the sector. But without a realistic approach, many are disappointed.

Adam Harris, a mining employment specialist at recruitment agency Robert Walters, says the industry is going through a quiet period compared with before the global financial crisis, but some skills are still sought.

Experienced workers, such as mechanical engineers, geologists and environmental scientists - along with site-based operators, such as drillers; industry-certified specialists, including open-cut examiners; and some skilled tradespeople - are in demand.

In boom times, inexperienced workers might find a job in mining more readily but in the current market, experience is critical. "Particularly when the industry goes through a quiet period, employers are less likely to take people with little or no experience," Harris says.

An assistant director of workforce skills at the Minerals Council of Australia, Chris James, says unskilled and inexperienced people looking to get into mining need to be realistic.

"A lot of people want to go in and drive a big truck for $100,000 to $150,000 per annum, and they think because they have driven, say, a milk truck in the past, that entitles them to get into a massive, $5 million mining vehicle," he says. "But this is just not the case."

Although workers with in-demand skills will always be pursued by employers, job-seekers with a potential advantage are those who live close to mining sites. "The industry does prefer to employ locals because it's cheaper than flying people in and out," James says.

OZ Minerals, the owner and operator of South Australia's Prominent Hill copper-gold operation 650 kilometres north-west of Adelaide, is a largely fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) employer.

The company's general manager of public affairs and sustainability, Rachel Eaves, says about 80 of OZ Minerals' 1200 workforce drive in and out from Coober Pedy. The remaining workforce are FIFO.

It may be common in the mining sector, but the practice of flying employees to a site to work and live in purpose-built villages or camps for set periods places extra demands on workers, particularly when combined with long hours, time spent away from loved ones, and the often-challenging nature of the work.

James says almost all shifts in the mining industry are 12 hours and the most common FIFO roster is two weeks on, two weeks off, followed by eight days on, six days off.

More employers are recognising the unique demands of the industry and trying to make life easier by improving the quality of on-site living standards, including offering more private accommodation options and wireless internet connections in employees' rooms, and supporting family-friendly initiatives, including industry organisations such as FIFO Families.

At OZ Minerals' Prominent Hill site, three "lifestyle co-ordinators" oversee staff fitness programs at company-owned facilities, including a pool, tennis court, golf range and gym. The company also offers book clubs and foreign-language classes, and it hosts an annual on-site Christmas event for workers and their families.

"It is important to us ... that the families of employees get a good understanding of what mine-site life is like," Eaves says.

Despite the lure of lofty pay packets and all the extra bells and whistles, a significant factor to get right in mining employment is finding a site and roster that suits a worker's family and personal needs.

The advent of resources such as FIFOBids - an online mining-recruitment tool in which skilled workers list their experience and employment terms and employers bid for their services - may make this easier.

Happy camper strikes balance

The past three years working at mining sites in Australia and New Zealand on a fly-in, fly-out basis has been taxing at times for business-improvement consultant Jacob Rudback. But finding a roster that matches his personal needs has made a difference to his work-life balance.

Contracted by a coal-mine operator in Blackwater, about 850 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, the Sydney resident and employee of business consultancy Momentum Partners earns more than $200,000 a year.

Despite his youth and lofty take-home salary, the 28-year-old says leading a fly-in, fly-out lifestyle has drawbacks.

"All the travelling can wear you out ... and it can also be tough on maintaining normal, functional relationships," says Rudback, who graduated from university in Sweden with a master of industrial engineering and a master of business administration.

In the past, he has worked some demanding rosters — including 11 days on, three days off, which he says affected his personal life. "It certainly didn't do much for my relationship at the time," he says.

Rudback now has five days on and two days off, which involves weekly commutes from his home to Blackwater, making his personal life "much easier to manage".

Rudback's work has enabled him to experience different purpose-built Australian mining camps, which he says aren't all created equal.

"It's super-important to look at a [mining] site and its camp and compare it with others that are out there, as some are better than others," he says.

"You spend so much time — about 90 per cent to 95 per cent of your life — there [on site or in camps], so it doesn't make sense to fly blindly on it."

Published: 22 September 2012

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