The miner exception in Australian jobs

The future of mining requires good recruitment in the present. Matt Farmer looks at a surge of job mobility in Australia, and what statistics can tell of the recruitment landscape.

Mining is a miner’s game, and that may be a problem. Credit: Kings Ropes Access via Shutterstock

Attracting talent to the mining industry is never easy. The traditional view of mining as “a rough man’s work” immediately deters half the population, with recent accusations of harassment and sexism only worsening this image. Beyond this lie the hardships of worksite conditions, safety, and physical distance from loved ones in FIFO work. These factors combine to make recruitment into mining tougher, although that may not be so true at this moment in time. 

In July, the Australian Bureau for Statistics published its annual accounting of job mobility in the country. This found that the number of people changing their employer between March 2022 and February 2023, referred to as job mobility, has remained at a ten-year high. 

Much has been made of the idea that the Covid-19 pandemic inspired a wave of job changes. Anecdotes will tell that this was brought about by a realisation of mortality, changes to physical capability because of long Covid, or simply as a result of prolonged introspection, but the narrative told that people supposedly felt it was time for a change. 

This does not show in statistics for 2021, but the releases for 2022 and 2023 have remained noticeably higher than in the decade prior. They also hint that this surge has not slowed down in the past 12 months, as well as showing that it is barely a surge at all.

The current state of Australian jobs

In the twelve months to February 2023, approximately 9.5% of the Australian workforce changed their job. This sits only 2% above the recent low point in 2021, but these small percentages still equate to thousands of Australians making use of the job market. 

This comes as redundancies and retrenchments are at an all-time low. Part of this perhaps comes as a result of mass layoffs in 2020 after the onset of Covid-19, which saw layoffs spike, particularly among women. This has made modern industry leaner, and in a better position to hire. 

However, the 2022/2023 job mobility surge seems minor when given greater perspective. Bjorn Jarvis, ABS head of labour statistics, explains: “Job mobility in Australia has generally been trending down for decades and reached a record low of 7.5% during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the 2023 figure might be higher, and is in fact the highest it has been since the early 2010s, it’s still relatively low compared to earlier decades.”

The recent relative high is merely a bump in a decades-long decline in job mobility from a peak in 1989. The reasons behind this are unclear, but generally speaking, workers are becoming more loyal to their jobs, if not their industries. 

No particular age range has inspired the surge. The most pronounced increase came among the youngest age range, between 15 and 24 years old, but this was soon matched by rises across the board. 

So, why haven’t miners seen much of this surge?

The miner exception to the jobs market

Of all Australian industries, mining hires among the fewest people either new to the job market or returning after 12 months of absence. Only agriculture, forestry and fishing; IT and telecoms; and energy supply and utilities had less new starters to the industry in the measurement period. To understand mining’s place in this, compare the approximate 61,000 people starting in mining between March 2022 and February 2023, compared to the 170,000 doing so in the construction industry. 

This is despite the fact that mining had one of the highest rates of job changes. Behind only hospitality and retail, mining saw 11.6% of its workers change jobs in the measurement period.  

Combined, these illustrate the difficulty of entering mining fresh, or the need to improve recruitment and training of fresh talent. Job mobility is very high in mining, but miners are spending their time recruiting from elsewhere in the industry. This keeps competition for skills high and gives workers more favourable terms, but can lead to a stale skills pool. As digitalisation advances, mining companies will benefit from access to those with better technology skills, who will remain elusive so long as mining is a miner’s game.

What does this mean for the industry?

High job mobility suggests that workers are, due to a variety of circumstances, currently more willing to consider changing jobs. Greater supply of workers generally makes jobs a buyer’s market, allowing recruiters to attract better talent.

However, miners know that this rarely applies to extraction industries, and companies must still promote the industry in order to bring in new talent. 

This is easier said and done. Another release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics points out that the country’s mining industry saw turnover fall by 6% between April and May 2023. Compare to one year before, turnover is down by a worrying 13.5%. 

The last 12 months was also the first time in years to see a noticeable drop in the number of miners in work. February 2023 saw 9,000 less workers in the mining industry than one year before, after a generally steady rise since comparable recording began in 2015. 

Ultimately, the jobs market is still treading new ground after Covid-19. Any comparison to the past cannot account for all the factors currently at play, and any prediction of the future would be little better than speculation. 

However, the statistics paint a clear picture of the present. Mining has not made itself felt in the jobs market, at a time when workers are ready for change. Perhaps it does not have the capability to react right now, but for greater futureproofing, recruiters would do well to tap unlikely seams for tomorrow’s mining talent.