While the skills crisis never fully disappeared during the brief downturn, there is growing evidence the nightmare is about to begin again.
Some of the biggest fans of the endless industrial relations strife at Xstrata’s Tahmoor Colliery appear to be mine management from other coal companies.
Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union district vice-president Bob Timbs told ILN a couple of months ago that many were hoping the Tahmoor deadlock would go on forever as the mine provides a pool of trained workers.
“Soon as they want to employ someone they advertise and someone leaves from Tahmoor,” Timbs said.
Although Xstrata is calling for voluntary redundancies at its Baal Bone colliery this week, poaching workers from other longwall operations will only go so far.
Hunter said a major pick-up in the skills crisis was obviously going on.
He estimated there was an Australia-wide shortage of about 36,600 trade positions and about 1800 industry professionals.
These figures take into account the people who are already training for degrees and trades, Hunter said.
On the shortage, Hunter said about 20,000 of these roles were due to retiring workers.
“So the big challenge to the industry is to not let people retire,” he quipped.
The lack of trades-qualified personnel is a major concern for the longwall sector and Hunter suggested that mines should aim to create flexible roles for tradesmen who are set to retire.
He said retiring tradies might be happy to work part-time, particularly if they can give back to the industry by training up new apprentices.
But this is just one measure, and he said there was no question that the industry had to look at “fast-tracking” trades training.
This option would be well suited to existing non-trade qualified mine workers and Hunter said many had a reasonable degree of capability.
He argued that coal companies would also have to demonstrate an ability to work with their communities.
“You are going to have to demonstrate that you are training trades people and you are putting on more trade apprentices,” Hunter said.
“The industry has got to train its own apprentices.”
Coal companies must also do what they can to keep their existing skilled workers.
“If you can’t retain your own staff you are going to be in deep [censored].”
Yet he also flagged a new strategy that the industry might be forced to pursue when the skills crisis becomes even more serious.
Hunter said within the ranks of the long-term unemployed there were significant numbers of trades and professionals.
“The numbers are startlingly high. The problem is they have been out of work for long periods of time, possibly by choice.”
Hunter said the mining industry was seeking “highly dedicated, focused people who are ready to work”
“But in this situation we may well have to look at how do we build programs to attract those people, bring them back up to speed with up-to-date trade qualifications and so on and get them back into the industry,” he said.
“There are enough of those people out there to actually address the skills shortage.”
MISC is investigating other options to tackle the shortage of mining engineers.
Ideally the industry group would like to see associate engineering degrees and the emergence of para professional roles in the mining industry.
Hunter said associate engineers could undertake two years of engineering studies and cover a lot of the “legwork” to free up the qualified engineers to perform a managerial role.
MISC is exploring this approach.
“How could you take the role of an engineer and a manager and fit two, three, or four associate engineers?” Hunter said.
“That could make a team that would reduce the demand for engineers overall.”
While he noted that additional skilled workers will inevitably come from overseas, Hunter does not expect this alone to fix the crisis.
“The industry has to really focus and say that there is no way we can just buy the skills we need,” he said.
“We actually have to be a major part of the solution and producing the answers.
“I think if the industry can do that, then fundamentally we should be able to get through the crisis that is emerging now.
“But it needs to be happening now. It can’t be in three years time, not two years time.”