Private sector plugs policy gaps

Skills shortage

By Sarah-Jane Tasker

A snowboard instructor who was packing shelves at the local Woolies, several ex-army servicemen, a groundsman and a couple of schoolteachers.

It’s an eclectic mix, but such is the desperation to plug a massive skills gap confronting the mining and energy sectors, that one Queensland-based services company has launched a unique training centre to fast-track these kinds of new workers.

Mastermyne’s training centre in Mackay simulates working life in an underground mine, using a series of tunnels — complete with a conveyer belt and crib room, built above the ground.

Chief executive Tony Caruso said the expanding industry, and diminishing pool of labour, meant the company had to start looking at its own initiatives to address the skills shortage.

“We bring in people who have never worked in the industry and put them through a four-week, highly supervised environment, where they undertake the work they would be doing when they get to site,” he said.

“The difference with this is they train in a real environment, using the same equipment they would use when they get on to the mine site. We replicate everything from the shift lengths, down to eating their lunch underground, the apparatus they wear and tools used. It is extremely realistic and we have had guys in there who have been underground for 30 years and all of them have been truly amazed at how lifelike it is.”

Mr Caruso said while the industry needed to lead the response to the skills shortage, the issue needed government support, which he did not receive for the $1.2 million training centre that opened in October.

“That was one of the things we were most disappointed with. We spent a lot of time lobbying both state and federal governments and could not get any traction with getting funding to build the first centre, which is why we did it and invested all the capital,” he said. Mr Caruso added that about 10 or 15 of the training centres were needed across the country “to really make a difference” in the battle to overcome the labour shortage. “Government officials have since visited the training centre and have agreed it is a good solution to the issue,” he said.

“It’s a pity it took us to build one before they could see it and support it.

“Hopefully, next time around they might be more willing.”

The Mastermyne training school runs monthly courses for groups of 10. It aims to train about 100 people a year, but it has the capacity to increase that to 200.

The company is considering building a similar training centre in NSW to service their expanding operations in the state.

“The people coming through the centre are of a high calibre and are more confident and competent because they have trained in the centre. When they get to the site they can contribute from the moment they get there,” Mr Caruso said. He said while the initiative was positive, it was not a “silver bullet” because the trainees were not experienced miners and the company could not just run on people who came through the centre. “We still need experienced miners and the only place we can get them from is overseas,” he said, adding that he supported industry calls for the 457 visa for overseas workers to be made more flexible.

“There is no pool of experienced underground workers ready to come into the industry.”

Major mining expansions planned in the sector, plus new mines opening, have renewed the industry’s focus on attracting overseas workers, as concerns increase that the pool of local skilled workers is severely lacking.

Mr Caruso said attracting overseas workers was only one of a list of strategies Mastermyne employed to address the issue. He said he had brought about 40 British miners into Australia about four years ago, which proved successful, and added the company was in the process of bringing over experienced miners from the US.

He said that on a recent visit to London he was also told Germany’s government would shut down all their underground coalmines over the next five years, leaving about 100,000 underground workers displaced.

“That’s the sort of thing we need to look at and tap into, to bring into Australia to complement what we are doing here.”

Article from The Australian, December 2010.


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