Industry Q&A: Navigating Workforce Challenges in a Rapidly Changing Mining Industry
The mining industry has always presented substantial workforce management challenges, with remote locations, FIFO workers and hazardous environments being the norm. However, with the continued integration of advanced technologies and innovations and the industry downturn, labour management has become even more complicated. Austmine recently caught up with Gary Wotherspoon, Chief Operating Officer, Mader Group to gain some insights into the most effective strategies for dealing with industry specific work force challenges.
1. How has the evolution of maintenance approaches and strategies in the mining sector over the last couple of years influenced your approach to service provision?
Not surprisingly, cost of production has become a major focus for all our clients, regardless of commodity. Procurement departments have become far less shy about demanding savings, and technology has helped. In our field, we see some producers pushing out the intervals between major rebuilds, and expecting more longevity from their mobile plant. Elsewhere producers have invested heavily in automated machines which are gaining acceptance rapidly. Both approaches call for a well-run, disciplined maintenance regime.
We see our role as down-cost contributors too, and by this I mean, how can Mader directly help lower our client’s cost of production? We do this by providing the best quality tradespeople that we can – someone who arrives on site at the designated time, with appropriate qualifications. Someone who understands the risks of their assigned task, and plans their approach appropriately. Someone who is familiar with the class of equipment they’ve been assigned, and can diagnose and repair confidently and competently. And someone who will listen to our client, understand their expectations, and fulfil their obligations cheerfully and professionally.
2. How have you successfully managed a labour force that is required to spend time in remote locations? What are the major challenges with retaining staff in sites such as those?
Managing a remote work force presents a number of challenges. Employees are not only isolated from their managers, but more importantly from their loved ones. Our responsibility is to ensure that they have all they need – the training, tools and support – such that they can concentrate on the task at hand and perform safely. For us, this process begins at recruitment stage – our HR team are skilled at finding experienced people with a successful history of working and living remotely.
Managing remote travel is vital, and we utilise GPS tracking and journey management plans extensively to ensure our people arrive safely. Roster lengths vary, and people’s personal circumstances can change, so we rely on mutual flexibility in matching employee’s desires with the needs of the business. Naturally, we are very mindful of managing fatigue and the risks this can bring. Retaining these people is incredibly important to us, and we use a range of tools including remuneration, flexible rosters, training courses and the opportunity to work for us across a range of locations, both in and outside Australia. We also believe in recognising the efforts and sacrifices of the wives and partners of our people, without whose support we would not be able to supply the quality of personnel that we do.
3. Mader has grown substantially since 2005. How have you been able to ensure a skilled and experienced labour offering with this rapid demand for your services?
It has been very difficult. All our customers will tell you that there are mechanics, and there are MECHANICS. We deliberately target people who want to challenge themselves to meet the high standards that our founding employees (many of whom are still with us) have set, and continue to diagnose and repair mobile equipment at a rate and to a standard that many clients haven’t seen before. We continue to have our Senior Managers co-conduct EVERY interview with our HR team, to ensure we only choose those who we believe will share our values. Our employees are great judges of character, and their referrals are also important to us. And of course, we also believe in training our own. Apprentices are a vital part of Mader’s renewal process, and not just young people out of school – we have provided adult apprenticeships to many of our employees, giving us the added bonus of now having dual-trade people across our crews.
4. Mader state that you are ‘driven by relationships rather than the invoice’. How important is collaboration in your field and how have you ensured a collaborative organisational culture?
We know that our reputation rests on the quality of the last job we did. So many things need to come together every time we turn out for a big Shutdown or a digger breakdown, to ensure we have that machine fixed and returned to production as quickly and safely as humanly possible. Our clients TRUST us to do that. We can only continue to promise this will happen EVERY time by having the utmost faith in our people – and that’s from the coordinator who answers the phone and determines our response, through to our mobilisation people who organise our technicians getting to site with all the relevant inductions and paperwork completed.
Then, our technicians must be correctly briefed on our client’s specific requirements and the scope of the work. And finally, when the work is completed and the machine is handed back, the client wants to know that the invoice they receive is timely, relates to a valid purchase order, and the time billed accurately reflects the time worked. All of this relies on trust – trust that is borne of making promises and keeping them, of treating people well and respecting their individualities, of providing challenging tasks and rewarding outstanding performance. Relationships are everything.
5. How did you successfully manage the overseas expansion of Mader? What advice would you provide to Australian METS looking abroad for opportunities?
Our first overseas contract was in Africa, so the learning curve was very steep! Understanding our customer’s problem was foremost. Then putting together a team that could not only perform the task, but also engage successfully with a culturally diverse workforce was next. Obstacles like logistics, tooling and of course time differences never go away, but we are better at managing them now. As always what helped us was an incredibly skilled and motivated team of tradesmen who set about fixing every piece of broken MME they could access which pleased our client and helped us cement a relationship that still exists.
To other Australian companies wishing to expand overseas I would say that although Australian miners are highly regarded internationally, the reputation might only grant you access to a conversation. What really counts is the ability to deliver. Price is very important, as is good local contacts and LOTS of patience.