In the wake of an industry-wide boom period, murmurs from miners about inconsistencies in team competency levels are beginning to reflect a pattern.
Whether it is in the form of ineffective leadership or hastily trained field operators, it seems a recent period of quick-and-easy profit making has contributed to some dilution in the Australian mining industry’s talent pool.
Perhaps the most disturbing example of this trend comes courtesy of a warning from the Queensland Department of Mines, which earlier this year flagged concerns about fake mine training qualifications.
Most of the time, however, worries in the industry over adequate skill levels are rooted in the discrepancies that exist between the various legitimate avenues of mining education.
Concerns have quietly surfaced over the sufficiency of certain vocational training programs versus more formalised university-associated options such as the Western Australian School of Mines or Mining Education Australia.
Although TAFE and registered training organisation mining courses are subject to many standard controls similar to those applied at the university level, the potential for inconsistencies is increased at this level of education.
Also, opportunities for on-the-ground experience are often relatively diminished in vocational training courses.
The issue can be especially pronounced among open pit teams, as inadequate competencies are less likely to be glossed over in skills-intensive underground environments.
The Australian Skills Quality Authority makes sure standards are being met by vocational training providers offering diplomas and certificates in mining-related fields.
It also regulates apprenticeship providers and pretty much covers regulation of all the training bases outside of university-level education, which is in turn monitored by the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency.
MiningNewsPremium spoke with ASQA chief commissioner Chris Robinson to get a better understanding about what miners needed to understand when drawing skills from RTO or TAFE training programs.
Robinson said mining hadn’t been raised on ASQA’s radar as a particularly troubled area of the broader skills training scene but he noted there was a substantial rate of inadequate training among RTOs in general.
Out of about 4000 RTOs, ASQA had refused re-registration to about 7% in the past three years.
“Too many training providers don’t do assessment properly and a reasonably high number end up getting their licence revoked by us,” Robinson said.
“There have been issues with providers that provide mining as part of their training delivery, certainly, but we haven’t noticed a spate of them just in mining.
“Having said that, there are many RTOs that are not doing assessment properly and there are some RTOs that are offering courses that are too short to enable people to gain the skills properly.
“There are some issues there that we’ve found in our regulatory work that we think apply to providers of mining training as much as they apply to anyone else.”
A government skills council, in consultation with industry, sets the training standards that ASQA regulates – ultimately bringing the responsibility of skills adequacy back to companies themselves, at least in part.
National Skills Industry Council records show that the “resources and infrastructure” training package that covers mining skills was last updated in April.
While keeping training requirements up to speed with the contemporary needs of the ever-changing mining sector remains a critical concern for industry advisors, individual companies may be more proactive by helping foster work experience opportunities for trainees outside of relatively well-funded university systems.
“Sometimes when you talk to employers, there’s some sort of feeling that magically experienced people can be produced from a training system and of course it doesn’t work like that,” Robinson said.
“The question is whether that’s adequately specified in the training package itself.
“There are obvious issues with health and safety that make mining companies and their locations somewhat unable to [provide work experience opportunities].
“There may need to be a bit of rethinking going on if people want to be more job-ready at the time that they graduate.”
Robinson said the mining industry could improve its track record by creating opportunities to vocational trainees for practical, on-location experience.
“Because mining is quite cyclical, miners don’t generally do a lot of training of people in their industry sector,” he said.
“They don’t offer that many work placements for training and all the rest of it – they like to hire fully trained and fully qualified people. And every time there’s a mining boom like we just had, they run out of them.
“So what they do is they tend to pay high wages to attract everyone they can who’s already fully trained but of course when the booms are big they run out of those people and then they can’t find enough people with the right skills.
“And it sort of promotes the feeling that people aren’t properly trained.”