Boom towns: careers in Australia's mining sector
Demand for experienced engineers is currently high in Australia’s burgeoning mining and natural resources industries
Australia is going through a boom in its mining and natural resources industries, which, in turn, is driving a construction industry boom. A number of multi-billion-dollar projects are under development and creating massive demand for engineering skills, particularly those related to construction. The UK is a prime source of expatriate professional and supervisory construction skills.
The boom began in Western Australia, centred on production of liquefied natural gas, both on and offshore, and iron ore onshore. The state’s mining and petroleum industry has grown at an average annual rate of 15 per cent for the last decade. Queensland is now following, producing LNG and coal. In both cases, much of the production is destined for export to India and China.
International oil company Chevron is leading two big LNG developments, Gorgon and Wheatstone, off Western Australia’s north-west coast. Gorgon is located on Barrow Island, 60km from the coast. Construction of the AUS$29bn (£18.4bn) Wheatstone project began last year at Ashburton North on the coast. It will be supplied from production platforms 120km offshore.
Four big minerals companies, BHP, Fortescue Metals Group, Hancock Prospecting and Rio Tinto, are, in the words of Peter Laver, director of recruitment agency Carmichael Australia, ‘racing each other to build the infrastructure to get iron ore out to market’.
‘Western Australia was ahead of the game,’ said Laver, ‘but Queensland is gearing up now as well, running in parallel.’ The LNG industry is planning AUS$18bn of developments over the next five years.
Western Australia was ahead of the game but Queensland is gearing up now as well, running in parallel
Each development needs massive investment in the provision of roads, rail, pipelines, port facilities and mine infrastructure. For the Gorgon project, for example, Chevron is building a 2km LNG loading jetty. Hancock’s Roy Hill 1 iron ore project will develop a deposit of 2.4bn tonnes and will entail the construction of a 340km railway from the mine to Port Hedland.
Demand for people with the right experience and skills is ‘massive’, said Laver. ‘For our market, the UK is a key source,’ he added. ‘The culture is similar, construction methods and specifications are similar, and UK qualifications are recognised.’
What all these projects are seeking is primarily civil engineering and construction supervisory experience in concrete, earthworks, rail, road and marine elements of the construction process. Construction professionals from site engineer to project manager level and section foreman to works manager are needed. Skills needed in the production and operational phase are also required, although from the UK these opportunities are thinner on the ground.
Openings are not generally for new graduates. ‘I would advise a minimum of two-and-a-half or three years’ project experience, and ideally five years,’ said Laver.
David Wilden, regional director (Europe) for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship at the Australian High Commission in the UK, concurs. ‘At our annual Skills Expo in London in February the benchmark was five years. Employers would prefer 10. The ideal is someone in their early to mid-thirties, at the peak of their working lives - if you pick them up then you know you can kept them for 10 or even 20 years.’
The Skills Expo usually covers all Australia’s 100-plus priority skills list. This year, two of its four days were focused on recruiting engineers and trades primarily for projects in Western Australia and Queensland. ‘Around 3,500 engineers applied for jobs and 28 employers were there. A couple of hundred jobs came out of it,’ Wilden said.
For engineers who think this could be for them, there are a number of ways into working in Australia. One is as a skilled migrant. Australia operates a points system for skills on the national priority and people who meet the points threshold can go over and find a job.
There has been massive growth in the ‘457 visa’ route. This is a temporary working visa lasting up to four years under which a company sponsors a candidate it plans to employ. It is possible to apply for permanent status during the life of the 457 visa if you decide to stay. Wilden says that between July 2011 and the end of April this year, almost 500 457 visas were issued to civil engineers in Western Australia.
Laver adds that people under 31 can also use the 417 holiday visa route. Primarily designed for backpackers, this lasts two years. It allows you to work for a year of that time, and for a maximum of six months for any one employer. However, it is a quick and easy way to get over to Australia and test the water; if you want to stay and you find a committed employer, ‘after three months or so you can start the 457 process’, said Laver.
Laver estimates that 80 per cent of the work is on a fly-in, fly-out basis, where the company flies staff in to the site
A major attraction is, of course, salaries. According to Laver ‘you can easily double what you would earn for a comparable role in the UK’.
Western Australia covers a vast area, the entire western third of the Australian land mass, and most work sites are very remote. In this state, Laver estimates that 80 per cent of the work is on an fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) basis - whereby the company flies staff in to the site where they will live in a camp while working, say, two weeks of 12-hour shifts before being flown back to the town or city where they live for around one week off. At the camp, food and accommodation is free. Popular places to live permanently include Perth and, increasingly, Bali, nearer to most of the work sites, as well as cheaper to live. For FIFO work, extra payments to compensate for anti-social working can add another 45 per cent to salaries.
Queensland is more accessible, so there is a mixture of FIFO and drive-in, drive-out (DIDO) working. ‘The tyranny of distance is not as bad,’ said Wilden. ‘Although there are places in outback Queensland, up the coast there are a number of centres such as Gladstone, Mackay, Townsville or Cairns. There are a lot of rail routes to these places, from the mines to the coast. A lot of places in Western Australia are new whereas in Queensland it’s more a case of ramping up production at existing sites.’
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Consultancy seeks to grow its operations in Adelaide, South Australia, by breaking into the mining industry
Frazer-Nash Consultancy has undergone rapid expansion since setting up its first overseas office in Adelaide, South Australia, two years ago. The office has grown in size to 16 staff and Phil Harris, manager of Frazer-Nash’s Australian business, expects this to double in the next 18 months.
The firm is aiming to replicate the range of skills its UK business offers, with skills, including systems engineering, safety, and engineering analysis to markets including defence, rail, oil and gas, and renewable energy.
Harris said the firm, which in the UK employs 440 staff and has a turnover of £42m, chose Australia because ‘there was a good overlap with the defence business in the UK and Australia. A large number of our other markets are also present in Australia, so we could build on our experience’. Adelaide was chosen because it again offered a good mix of the markets in which Frazer-Nash operates, and the state government was able to provide a lot of useful advice.
Among major contracts the firm is working on is the Air Warfare Destroyer, which is being built in Adelaide. The firm has qualified on a number of government framework contracts. It is also working for renewable energy developer Carnegie Wave Energy, and is undertaking analysis for oil and gas producer Woodside, as well as supporting major rail infrastructure programmes.
There is also potential, said Harris, to break into the booming mining industry. This is not something for which the firm is known in the UK, but he said: ‘We’re known for providing high-end support to complex projects. Developing a mine is a complex project requiring systems engineering skills; maintaining and operating a mine needs expertise in safety systems. There are a number of synergies there.’
About half the staff of the Australian office have been recruited locally, with the rest relocating from the UK. Of those from the UK, some see Australia as a permanent move, others as a temporary posting allowing them to broaden their experience and see another part of the world.