Universities battered by a COVID-linked collapse in income from international students have responded with severe cuts to courses and staff that are adding to the skills crisis facing the resources sector.
With the industry under pressure to supply the metals and minerals needed for a net-zero future, mining and mining-tech companies are involved in an international hunt for key staff including geoscientists, mine managers, and software engineers to develop the technology needed to facilitate faster, more precise exploration and mining.
Geologists and mine managers are on the Federal Government’s Skilled Occupation List in the hope that those with the skills can be lured to Australia.
The decline in students enrolling in Earth science-related subjects was evident well before COVID, a combination, among other things, of declining interest in science-related subjects and the mining sector suffering from a poor public image.
The Australian Geoscience Council in a report released in November 2022, Australian Geoscience Education Profile 2002-2021, said that year one Earth science enrolments in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia started falling dramatically from 2012, the peak of the last mining boom.
It said the lack of exposure and awareness of geoscience in Australian secondary schools remained an issue.
“It is partly linked to the lack of earth science teachers and other problems in the STEM disciplines,” it said.
“A lack of scientific literacy in the general population does not serve the development of science policy or assist the sector in encouraging support for higher education and research in geoscience.”
On staffing, it said some Australian university departments made significant cuts to Earth science academic support staff in response to actual or perceived reductions in university budgets due to COVID-19.
IMDEX Chief of Product Management and Marketing Michelle Carey said the mining-tech sector was grappling with trying to attract geoscientists from an increasingly small pool.
She said the reaction of universities to the collapse in income from international students had been evident for a couple of years, but the effect had become clearer in the past six to 12 months.
“Everyone is trying to get geologists and mining engineers and can’t,” Dr Carey said. “What’s happening in parallel is that universities are cutting their geology courses. Over the past couple of years some universities have shut geology departments.
“Macquarie University shut their entire geology department in the past 12 months. It was the highest-ranking geology department from a research perspective in Australia.
“There is a complete disconnect between those actions and the needs of the industry.
“You have the universities’ reaction, the impact of COVID on us as an industry, the industry going through a boom because of net zero and electrification, mining not considered an attractive employment option and then someone is chopping off our pipeline for reasons of their own.”
Dr Carey, an accomplished geologist, geochemist, and environmental hydrologist, said the shortage may precipitate the faster adoption of technology within the sector.
“We have to accept we are not going to get the volume of geoscientists and mining engineers that we once had,” she said.
“In that respect, adoption of technological innovation and improvement is non-negotiable.
“The mining sector doesn’t actually have a choice. They have to accept technological change because they won’t be able to do things the way they always have.”
Dr Carey said that, as a result, geoscientists’ work will change, with a greater emphasis on data collection and analysis that would be more diverse and rewarding.
And a clear career path was now available that involved innovation and the development of technology to deliver the tools that infield geoscientists will use.
“We are part of the mining industry, but you don’t have to work in the typical mining environment,” Dr Carey said.
“The work you do as a software engineer or product manager, or geoscientist is helping to build the products that, increasingly, resource companies will need as they respond to the demand for sustainable mining.”
She said mining-tech related employment enabled geoscientists to use all their skills without the need to necessarily work in the field.
“There is a path here that is more flexible, and city based, but also getting to make an impact in a very direct way,” Dr Carey said.
“The METS sector has the capacity to hire people across many different companies and situations, engineering, geology, software development.
“There are companies with big research and development budgets employing a lot of smart people in potentially more interesting technical environments than the mining companies.
“More intellectual capital is starting to sit with tech companies not resource companies, so this idea that you have to work for a resource company isn’t right.”
Geologist Henrique Persequini, 35, has been with IMDEX since 2015 but said even when he started his career the shortage of geologists was evident.
“There are few geology universities in Brazil and few professionals graduate each year,” he said.
He now works as an instruments commercial manager, having graduated with a geology degree from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in 2011.
He said he joined IMDEX “to be close to the very best in terms of field data collection technology”.
“Geology work is extremely investigative, there is always a story to be told,” he said. “But for that, meticulous work involving data collection and interpretation must be done.”
He said working for a mining company was an option but “having to work in distant, often remote places would greatly affect my family dynamics”.
Rocky Barker, 41, was with AusSpec when IMDEX bought the company in 2020 and stayed on to work on the aiSIRIS project. He is now Principal Technical Specialist
Dr Barker, a self-confessed “rockhound”, said he was sold “after the first intro geology class”.
He obtained a Ph.D. in geology from The University of Waikato, New Zealand, and studied in the US at Colorado State University and Oregon State University,
“I’ve always had a fascination with science and technology,” Dr Barker said. “Geology, for me, was the way to integrate all areas of physical science to answer questions about the landscapes I see every day.
“The idea of extracting the most value out of geoscience data has been very interesting to me. I’ve spent a fair bit of time learning about coding and technology to help me develop innovative ways to make large datasets more accessible and interpretable to geoscientists.
“IMDEX is well known for being on the cutting edge of rock knowledge technology and was my number one choice for employment after my Ph.D. It was a happy coincidence that they bought the company I worked for.”
While working for a mining company was an option and he had received offers, Dr Barker said he wanted to work for a growth-minded company focusing on coming up with innovative solutions to challenges in the mining industry.
“IMDEX has been a great place to work,” he said. “The employees are treated well, and I feel they can contribute in ways that play to their strengths. My experience in the mining industry is that your position is quite rigid, and there isn’t much room for creativity.”
He said rather than eliminating economic geology programs, universities should take ownership and teach sustainable, clean mining practices.