Mining the diminishing talent pool

Resources battle

By Jo Studdert

Recruitment manager Tudor Marsden-Huggins has a problem. One of his mining clients is likely to give the go-ahead soon for a project that will have the recruiter trying to fill 1000 positions for skilled labour.

Marsden-Huggins’s company, Employment Office, is a recruitment management firm. It generates “attraction strategies” for client companies, creating marketing angles and branding recognition concepts to help companies attract staff.

If requested, Employment Office will also conduct the background checks, shortlistings, interviews and job offers. Once a position is filled, Employment Office will also take care of matters such as helping international candidates settle in.

The company also looks after the client’s retention strategies. This covers everything from rewards for employees, co-ordinating strategies for maintaining brand through to campaigns for a nomination as employer-of-choice.

Marsden-Huggins says getting and keeping staff is the biggest problem resource companies experience.

“Miners face tremendous competition for skilled labour,” he says.

“In any project with 600 staff, only about 15 are executive, administrative and clerical. All the rest are skilled and unskilled workers: drillers, drivers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, fitters and turners, navvies.

“Miners are worried first about whether they can get the talent they need to compete with their rivals. Next they worry about salary levels and what those are doing to profitability. Finally, they worry about their retention strategies.”

And well they may. One Employment Office client had a 60 per cent staff turnover in its first six months.

“Many of its employees, especially those from the US and Britain, found their expectations – for salary, conditions, location, lifestyle – were unrealistic,” Marsden-Huggins says.

“For instance, you can’t get a pizza delivered in Karratha in Western Australia. Non-miners can’t afford to live there. It costs $950 a night for a hotel room or $2000 a week to rent a caravan.”

Besides, anyone with that sort of money is not driving a pizza van and, moreover, anyone who can drive would be out at the mines, driving trucks for $120,000 a year.

“So if you expect to be able to relax with a pizza after a day at the mine, forget it. The fly-in, fly-out lifestyle is awful and retaining staff under these conditions is difficult. We stress to clients the importance of addressing candidates’ expectations from the outset, especially as so many workers come from overseas.

In recent job advertisements, Employment Office found the percentage of foreign applicants was high: 57 per cent for coal geologists, 50 per cent for senior metallurgists, 47 per cent for senior mine geologists and 36 per cent for mine geologists. “That’s typical,” Marsden-Huggins says.

Companies search globally even for labourers because the size of projects coming online is dramatic and those up and running have siphoned off many labourers and skilled workers.

“One Broken Hill company has had three employment campaigns in the past year for geologists. A year ago the advertisement attracted 40 candidates. The same role now attracted only 11, and this drop was compounded by tradesmen getting excited about big, new projects and heading for Queensland or the west. The recent Cooper Basin oil and gas project, for instance, received more than 1000 applicants for general labouring roles,” the recruitment manager says.

The pool of skilled and unskilled labour is shrinking, yet more projects are planned. Global demand for our resources is firing mining salaries but the drive to meet exports will accept those salary jumps, especially if it encourages workers to sign up for jobs.

Top tips

  • Get the message right. Describe the type of person you want so the right candidate will identify it as a good fit, or focus on the job’s selling points.
  • Have a clear advertising and attraction strategy. Advertise far and wide using newspapers, the big online job boards, niche job boards and industry websites.
  • Use a good candidate management system. Track all communication or risk losing good candidates or damaging your brand by being one of those companies that never replies. It also builds a talent database for the future. Respond to all candidates within a week, whether you’re interested in them or not.
  • Treat candidates like clients. You need to out-perform your competitors: use an expert to get your process right and make sure you have the resources to fill in the gaps.
  • Use recruitment agencies sparingly. Take control of your recruitment process and compare agency candidates with direct applicants lest they be oversold.
  • Manage candidate expectations. Ensure candidates know what is expected from them as well any benefits associated with the role. Especially with expatriate candidates, make sure you explain as much as you can about the role, the company, the location and the environment they’ll be working in so you don’t lose them early on.
  • Be prepared to go the extra mile. There is a spike in international mining candidates, and employers should be prepared to help them settle in. Line up houses for them to look at and give them a mobile phone straight away.
  • Behavioural and cultural fit is important. Use a good behavioural testing system. Cultural fit is less tangible but still important if you want good people to stay.
  • Have a retention strategy. By engaging workers and keeping them happy, you will avoid unnecessary recruitment and ensure your company has a strong name.

Article from The Australian, September 4, 2010.

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