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What is the outlook for graduate jobs in the mining sector?

Peter Nicholls

The mining industry is in constant flux as economic, policy, and environmental challenges change how (and where) organisations operate.

The mining industry is in constant flux as economic, policy, and environmental challenges change how (and where) organisations operate. Consequently, some jobs with traditionally secure career prospects now harbour instability, while strong growth is predicted for other, less expected roles.

The mining, oil and gas industry supports a range of careers, and to include them all here would be impractical. Instead, our focus has been on identifying the more prominent job titles found in the sector, with a focus on those careers that are best-suited to graduates from science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Chemical engineers

Future growth: stable

There are about 7,200 chemical engineers in Australia, a quarter of whom are women, and the rest of whom are men. Their on-the-job responsibilities include designing chemical processing systems, studying pollution problems, monitoring the performance of equipment, developing pharmaceutical products, and addressing challenges in chemical production plants.

According to JobOutlook, the number of chemical engineers in Australia is not expected to change over the next five years. One possible explanation for this is the relatively low average age of chemical engineers, which, at forty-five years, means that a large segment of the workforce won’t approach the average age of retirement until well after 2020.

Fortunately, the skills of chemical engineers are highly valued in multiple industries, giving them a high degree of flexibility. Currently, only 17 per cent of chemical engineers are employed by the mining sector—a larger proportion (30%) work in professional, scientific, and technical services, while around 29% are employed by manufacturing organisations.

Industrial, mechanical, and plant engineers

Future growth: decline

There are currently about 31,4000 industrial, mechanical, and plant engineers in Australia, and this number is expected to drop to just over 29,000 within the next five years. However, this isn’t necessarily bad news for soon-to-be graduates in this field. New positions, as well as vacancies caused by staff turnover, are still expected to create at least 5,000 openings during the same five year period.

However, it’s possible that the majority of those new positions won’t be in the mining sector. Only seven percent of industrial, mechanical, and plant engineers are currently employed by mining organisations. By contrast, 40 per cent work in manufacturing, 25.5 per cent in professional, scientific and technical services, and 21.1 per cent in other industries. Interestingly, this is a profession characterised by a low degree of gender diversity—only five per cent of current industrial, mechanical, and plant engineers are female.

Once on the job, industrial, mechanical, and production engineers are responsible for a range of tasks, such as designing mechanical machines, allocating tasks to different members of the workforce for maximum efficiency, and inspecting plants and equipment.

Environmental scientist

Future growth: moderate

Mining organisations must comply with strict environmental policies designed to eliminate or, at the very least, mitigate the impact of their operations on surrounding flora, fauna, and other natural resources. This is the task of environmental scientists, whose responsibilities include enforcing environmental regulations, proposing solutions to reduce environmental repercussions, studying pollution, and developing conservation policies.

There are currently around 18,700 environmental scientists in Australia, with that number expected to increase by about 1,000 within the next five years. However, due to turnover and newly created positions, the number of jobs that will become available during the same period is anticipated to be around 5,000.

There has been a noticeable shift towards gender balance in this profession, though women still make up only 40% of the workforce. About 7.6 percent of environmental scientists are employed in the mining industry. Interestingly, the largest employer is the professional, technical, and scientific services sector, which accounts for 30% of the jobs in Australia. This sector includes environmental scientists who work for consultancy firms, and may therefore be employed indirectly by mining organisations.

Mining Engineers

Future growth: decline

Mining engineers are critical to the operations of modern mines, where their responsibilities include conducting preliminary surveys of mineral, petroleum and natural gas deposits with prospectors; preparing plans for tunnels and mine shafts; devising methods of ore extraction; and locating new drilling sites.

So if mining engineers are so vital, why are they expected to decrease in number over the next five years, from about 11,700 to 9,000? One reason is that the winding down of the ‘resources boom’ has resulted in decreased demand for mining engineers, with some 28% of them shifting into other sectors such as manufacturing, construction, and professional services. Fortunately, the creation of new positions and the likelihood of staff turnover mean that the Department of Employment still expects the creation of as many as 5,000 vacancies over the coming decade.

Though mining engineers are employed across Australia, nearly half are found in Western Australia, with another 32 per cent split between Queensland and New South Wales. This remains a profession with low female representation—about 84 per cent of mining engineers are male.

Geologists, geophysicists, and hydrologists

Future growth: decline

Professionals in this category specialise in the location, identification, and extraction of various minerals and natural resources (such as water)—given the centrality of this goal to mining in general, it’s easy to see why geologists, geophysicists, and hydrologists are considered essential in the mining sector, which provides just below 60 per cent of their jobs.

Nevertheless, the number of geologists, geophysicists, and hydrologists is expected to decline over the next five years, continuing a pattern seen over the past decade. The good news is that, with half of these professionals aged over 45, and new prospects in mining reliably generating demand for the skills of earth scientists, both retirement and new opening will result in the creation of about 5,000 jobs by 2020 (even as the total number sinks from 7,500 to around 7,100).

Once on the job, geologists, geophysicists, and hydrologists are responsible for activities such as assisting prospecting teams, producing scientific papers and laboratory reports, and studying the causes and effects of natural phenomena like earthquakes and erosion.

As with many other professions in this sector, male earth scientists still outnumber their female counterparts. However, there have been encouraging signs of a shift towards a more balanced workforce, with one in four jobs now occupied by women.                                     

Metallurgical Engineers

Future growth: stable

Metallurgical engineers focus on converting raw materials—such as ore—into refined minerals that they then use to create industrial metals, alloys, and other materials. While only a small number (less than ten per cent) of metallurgical engineers are employed in mining, they are vital to industries such as manufacturing and engineering, which provide the majority of their jobs.

The Department of Employment predicts that the number of metallurgical engineers will vary only slightly over the next five years, hovering at around 8,600. However, new vacancies are expected, with turnover creating as many as 2,000 new vacancies by 2020.

Occupational and environmental health professionals

Future growth: strong

Mining is an inherently risky operation, and occupational and environmental health professionals play an important role in ensuring that people are kept safe, both at mining sites and in surrounding areas. This can involve ensuring compliance with relevant legislation and protocols, identifying and eliminating hazards, training staff in correct safety procedures, and coordinating the return and recovery of injured workers.

The number of occupational and environmental health professionals is predicted to grow from 24,000 to around 27,000 over the next five years, reflecting the expansion of industries such as construction, public health, and social assistance. Coupled with vacancies caused by staff turnover and the creation of new positions, the total number of job openings will be at least 10,000 by 2020.

The distribution of these professionals reflects the relative population of different states and territories, with New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia providing approximately 75 per cent of jobs.