Mining wages hit boom-time highs
Australian Financial Review, By Peter KerResources reporter
Jul 15, 2019 — 12.00am
Wages for certain mining jobs have soared beyond boom-time levels and some workers will enjoy an extended period of premium wages amid a quadruple squeeze on skills.
Georgia Kerr, a third-year Mining Engineering student from the Western Australian School of Mines, says many students already have jobs lined up. Travis Anderson
An east coast infrastructure boom, tighter rules on foreign labour and low enrolments in university mining courses have coincided with a resurgence in mining investment, forcing big miners to pay more for engineers, geologists and technicians.
Miners such as Fortescue Metals have responded with targeted recruitment of former defence force personnel, while engineering students like Kalgoorlie's Georgia Kerr are being hotly pursued by employers.
Ms Kerr said several of her classmates at WA School of Mines had already signed contracts despite having 18 months of further study before graduating.
''At WA School of Mines right now there's a few in third year who have already signed contracts for when they graduate [fourth year]. It is a 'get in and get them as soon as you can' sort of atmosphere at the moment," she said.
Soaring wages in the mining sector come amid weak wages growth of 2.3 per cent per year in the broader economy.
A study of remuneration paid to 35,000 mineworkers by advisory firm BDO Remsmart found at least 12 mining jobs were now commanding higher wages than at the peak of the last resources boom.
The list includes senior mine engineers, heavy diesel fitters, senior geologists, electricians and excavator drivers, while maintenance superintendents were among the best paid, with median total remuneration for the latter job above $200,000 per year including superannuation.
While 2011 marked the peak of the last resources boom in terms of commodity prices, BDO's managing director of remuneration and reward services Allan Feinberg said wages in many mining jobs peaked in 2014, when contracts struck at the commodity price peak came into their final year.
While BDO's data is national, it is heavily influenced by Western Australian mine wages, which are rising amid a $10.3 billion simultaneous spend on new iron ore mines by Fortescue, BHP and Rio Tinto.
WA miners were finding it harder to lure skills from the eastern states amid a boom in infrastructure projects around Melbourne and Sydney, according to Paul Everingham, chief executive of Western Australia's Chamber of Minerals and Energy.
"At the time of the last boom the rest of Australia was fairly flat so we didn't have trouble attracting Australians from the east coast,'' he said.
''We are having more trouble attracting east coast skills definitely, and because the federal government has abolished 457 visas (which allowed foreign citizens to work in Australia) it is hard to also attract international labour."
Foreign labour can still enter under ''Designated Area Migration Agreements", but Mr Everingham said that policy was more bureaucratic and less appealing to skilled workers because it did not offer the same pathway to citizenship that previous skilled migration policies did.
Mr Everingham said those factors, combined with low university enrolments in courses like mine engineering, meant the shortages were likely to persist.
Former defence force worker Jarryd Hamon is now an autonomous technician at Fortescue's Christmas Creek hub. Supplied.
"Demand is going to always be there to operate mines, fewer people are studying it, so there will be an extended period where they will be able to attract premium wages in our view," he said.
Mr Feinberg said miners had also exacerbated the skills shortage by trying to lure workers with family-friendly rosters, which meant companies often required a greater number of skilled individuals to complete the same amount of work.
''You now need double the amount of engineers in a market that is already limited,'' he said.
Rio Tinto warned in August 2018 that inflation was returning to WA's iron ore heartland, but Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said the surge in wages was not widespread.
''While we are seeing certain areas of skills shortages across Australia, wages growth in the mining sector is specific to certain categories of skilled workers, for example heavy diesel fitters,'' she said.
''Providing training opportunities for the next generation of our workforce is crucial and we have award-winning programs in place to ensure a sustainable pipeline of talent and, importantly, to give our people long-term career opportunities.''
Like the defence forces, mining requires skilled operators and maintainers of heavy equipment to work in remote locations, and Fortescue's strategy to target former defence workers lured Jarryd Hamon to work as an autonomous technician.
''There are quite a few similarities with mining life and defence work, including the importance of teamwork and a sense of culture throughout the workplace,'' he said.
Mr Hamon said the switch to mining had delivered financial and learning benefits.
''The mining sector provided an opportunity to work with different equipment and the ability to advance my career and knowledge at a faster rate. It was also a financially more beneficial decision for my fiancee and myself to start a family and enjoy more of what life has to offer,'' he said.
''I personally find mining preferable to defence work at the current point in my life as I feel the effort I put into my work correlates to the opportunities that come my way.''
Ms Kerr said she had decided not to sign a contract with a mining company prior to graduation, and would use work experience stints to trial several different companies before selecting an employer after graduation.
''I am still getting a feel for different companies, I feel like while I am studying, I am enjoying getting a comparison point, so over the summer I was with a different mine and now that I have been with someone else I have got a lot of comparisons I can make," she said.
Ms Kerr said she was unaware of the income a mining engineer could earn when she chose the course, and says she would eventually like a job with a roster that allows good quality of life as well as hands-on experience in the mine pit, rather than an office job.
''Only when I finally got to WA School of Mines did I find out that I made a really good choice in terms of what I would be earning after I graduate and how secure a job seems to be,'' she said.
''There is no doubt in people getting hired, everyone from our previous years has gotten a job in the past two years so it seems very stable.
''I am quite confident (about getting a job) because along with the new operations that are up, there is also quite a shortage of mining engineers at the moment, there are quite a few jobs going around and even for vacation work.''
Mr Kerr spent last week on site at the Tropicana gold mine in WA, which is owned by AngloGold Ashanti and Independence Group. She has also done a stint at Saracen Mineral Holding's Carosue Dam gold mine.