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Professor Steve Hall is one of the foremost academics in Australian mining education. As part of the Western Australian School of Mines at Curtin University, Professor Hall is positioned within one of Australia’s only schools that graduate a dedicated mine surveyor. In January 2016, he commenced the role of Executive Director of Mining Education Australia (MEA). This September in Brisbane, Professor Hall will deliver a keynote at the momentous International Mine Surveying Congress (ISM2016).
Held once every three years internationally, the congress serves to share expertise in the science and practice of mine surveying, mining and geotechnical engineering, geology, mineral evaluation and allied disciplines. Ahead of his international headline appearance, Positon’s Anthony Wallace spoke with Professor Hall about the cyclical nature of the mining sector and the prospect of another boom on the horizon.
POSITION: Where does Australia’s mining education currently sit in light of the current decline in mining operations?
PROFESSOR STEVE HALL: Certainly at undergraduate level, mining education is less widely available than perhaps you would think. There are probably in total no more than about seven or eight of the nearly 40 Australian universities that teach a mining program. That comes down to no more than two in any one state. The enrolments into those universities tend to mirror the cyclical nature of the industry, which is generally one of boom and bust. When the global economy goes gangbusters, then of course there is a huge demand for metals, minerals, energy, etc. That in turn drives huge investment in those industries in Australia as we have previously seen.
We are cyclical business. The problem is our cycle is out of sync with the industry’s needs.
And when the global economy comes off the boil we get a collapse in prices. What that tends to do is we then unfortunately also see a collapse in demand for places at the few remaining universities, which we are now seeing. When we get into the boom condition again of course, we don’t have enough graduates to support the industry. During our previous boom, one of the drivers of the high cost of Australian mining was in fact a lack of skilled people. It takes 3-4 years to produce a graduate and of course there is a lag between the message getting back to students that there’s good jobs, good money and then entry and graduation through university. We are cyclical business. The problem is our cycle is out of sync with the industry’s needs.
POSITION: What does this mean for those wishing to graduate as a mining engineer or mining surveyor?
Since we have just come out of a boom period, we’re now graduating record numbers of students in Australia, and they’re struggling to find jobs. That message is going back into the lower years of undergraduate study and into the secondary schools and we’re seeing a dramatic fall-off in student numbers. From graduating well in excess of 200 graduates this year, we anticipate a drop of 80% in the number of graduates 3-4 years from now, which less than 50 in total. We will then be back to the student numbers that we were seeing in the mid-1990s. Since that time a number of mining schools have closed.
This is a key message that I have go to get across to the industry, because if you don’t look after the graduates now, they’re not going to be there when you need them. And you are once again going to end up offering those who are any good ridiculous salaries, and that is going to add to costs. And because they are in demand, you also struggle to retain them so that further adds to costs, as well as safety and productivity issues.
POSITION: How do you overcome this issue so that we are prepared if a boom does come?
One of the solutions is to look after those students that are graduating now. It is of course very difficult to be taking on a young, inexperienced person when perhaps you’re shedding a significant number of your workforce. It is difficult and we understand the reasons why it is difficult. Likewise, for those students that are studying, we can provide them with some industry experience. Give them experience and get to know them, because they will be your graduates in another 1-3 years’ time when your recruitment situation is different. So the solution is perhaps partly within the industry.
POSITION: Can you say with any certainty whether there is another mining boom anticipated for the near future?
History tells us that the cycles are on average about seven years long. We go into 3-4 years of doom and gloom and then we come out of that over a period of another 3-4 years. Simplistically, we have been doing it difficult for four years or so now, and it should start to turn around. Certainly, prices seem to have bottomed out and production is still very healthy. We have record amounts of iron ore and coal currently being exported from the existing workforce.
We go into 3-4 years of doom and gloom and then we come out of that over a period of another 3-4 years. Simplistically, we have been doing it difficult for four years or so now, and it should start to turn around.
The other key message I need to get across is how education interacts with industry through research and innovation. This includes some of the ways the industry, Australian government and the universities work together to produce new technologies.
POSITION: Do you see the same educational issues exist for mining surveyors?
I’m probably sitting in one of the only schools that does graduate a dedicated ‘mine surveyor’ here in Western Australia, which again perhaps shows how the discipline has somewhat disappeared or has become far more generic in its teaching. In my presentation I will also make it a little personal: our very first graduate as a mine surveyor in fact got his mine surveying certificate around 1916.
With the anniversary of the First World War, I will talk about how Lt James Peat then went onto Gallipoli. He survived and actually died fighting in Northern France. Another one of our graduates, Paul Royle, in fact died last year aged 101. Royle was actually part of the true story of the Great Escape. He tunnelled the German prisoner-of-war camp and who else would you want surveying a 100 metre escape tunnel other than a school of mines graduate mine surveyor. He doesn’t know why he wasn’t shot, because of the first 50 captured they shot 48 of them. He survived until 2015 and in fact there’s a few more interesting stories that I will weave into my presentation that perhaps people might not be aware of.
POSITION: How does your school aim to address the rapid advancements in mining surveying innovation?
The rest of my presentation will actually be about the industry and where the mining schools need to focus. We still have a department of spatial sciences and like many others we are flying drones, mapping in three dimensions, for example the wreck of HMAS Sydney, as well as all of the exciting stuff that you would expect mine surveyors to be aware of. That said, on average we probably graduate less than 10 graduates a year. They have very little trouble finding employment with quite good salaries and they tend to work only day shifts.
Join Professor Steve Hall at the XVI International Mine Surveying Congress (ISM2016) in Brisbane, 12-16 September 2016. This year the congress theme will be ‘Connecting Education and Industry’ and aims to bring the program back to the ‘coal face’ of the international industry, ensuring that mine surveyors working on-site as well as academics are involved in determining its future. For further information, please visit www.ism2016.com.