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Challenges to mining, quarrying identified

Low commodity prices and related staff cutbacks, potential skills shortages and increasing automation of the workforce were among the issues highlighted in SkillsDMC’s Resources and Infrastructure Industry Workforce Analysis and Forecast.

The industry’s national skills council also predicted a turnaround in demand for resources in the medium term, thanks to a number of major civil infrastructure projects in the pipeline.

The report, released on 13 July, stated that there were 12,255 people employed in quarrying in Australia at the end of 2015. This figure represented six per cent of the roughly 220,000 working in “total mining”, making quarrying the category’s smallest subsector, behind coal mining, oil and gas extraction, and metal ore mining.

For the resources and infrastructure industry as a whole, the report stated that there had been a period of “significant” growth over the past decade. A sharp increase in commodity prices contributed to high levels of engineering construction activity in Australia, which reached a peak of $130.8 billion in 2012-13 – around 189 per cent higher than in 2004-05.

“The decline in commodity prices, particularly since 2013, led to a number of changes, mainly impacting on exploration, investment and employment levels,” the report said.

Staff cutbacks

As employers look to consolidate their businesses in the face of low commodities prices, one of the areas they are cutting back is staff.

The report stated: “The lack of utilisation of skilled resources is likely to lead to the migration of those skills into other industries. What is not known is whether those skills will be available when activity in the sector recovers.”

A “weak” outlook for commodity prices has accelerated a shift to more efficient, cost-effective operations. One of the “key trends” to come out of this shift is the increased use of automation; however, the report stated that so far, this was only applicable to “larger, more remote operations”.

Automation and robotics are being adopted in areas such as conveyor monitoring, materials handling and site surveying.

“One of the biggest challenges that quarry and mine operators are already facing and will continue to face in the future is increased automation at sites,” Skills DMC CEO Nigel Carpenter said.

“It’s critical that operators recognise that this change is coming, and make appropriate changes to their procurement policies.”

“A company’s human resources are the most flexible and adaptable resources available and operators need to understand the intrinsic value in a well-trained, competent workforce. Procurement processes should bear this in mind; human capital will carry mine and quarry operators into the age of automation.”

The report predicted that civil infrastructure would rebound this year after a period of decline.

“Construction of infrastructure has fallen 23 per cent since the peak in 2012-13 to $54.5 billion in 2014-15,” it said. “It is expected 2015-16 will be the trough in the construction cycle with improved prospects for the roads, rail, telecommunications and electricity leading the upturn in activity later this decade.”

Among the projects forecast to stimulate investment activity were the eastern seaboard developments of the WestConnex, NorthConnex and Pacific Highway upgrades in New South Wales, the Bruce Highway upgrades in Queensland and the Western Distributor in Victoria.

The full report is available at the SkillsDMC website.

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