Millicent Macheru, an operation specialist at Anglo America in Australia, shared her journey in the mining industry, career paths in mining, and the future of the industry. Enjoy the read as you gain more insight into the mining world!
CIM: How did you get started in the industry and walk us through your journey to Australia?
I hold a B.Sc. in Mining Engineering from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, where I also just completed a postgraduate diploma in Business Administration from the same university. I have been in the mining industry for over 4 years working majorly in mine production and planning, and I’m currently an operation planning specialist for a mining company in Australia.
The journey started as a 7-month training in a Mining Graduate Development program with Anglo American, South Africa, where I gained cross-commodity mining experience because the company was a cross-commodity company. I started at Amanda Belt platinum mine in Rustenburg and later moved to Greenside Colliery mine in Witbank. I then completed the blasting board examination, qualifying me as a Shift Boss (Underground Production Supervisor). The board exam was coordinated by the Department of Mineral Resources. Interestingly, on the day of my certification, I was the only female among eight men. However, among the nine, I was the only person to ace the exam on the first attempt. The exam was oral with some test questions in law and regulation since you would be responsible for the health and safety of people underground.
As a young 22-year-old female and a newly qualified production supervisor, on the first day of work, I was confronted with the reality of having to manage 11 amazing and hardworking men: 3 roof bolters, 3 shuttle car operators, 2 CM operators, 2 electricians, and 1 fitter. They were all men and I was the only female leading a mine section at that time. Fortunately, they were the best crew, not only at the mine but in the whole of South Africa. This led to my career highlight in 2019, when we were the only South African mine to produce 1,000,000 tonnes in 10 months.
It was not smooth sailing as it sounds; there were challenges, some of which were embedded in my responsibility of managing the day-to-day running of the mine section and producing tons of ores while ensuring the health and safety of my crew. To put this in context, I was only 22 years old at that time, straight out of the university, the only female, and very much inexperienced in terms of leadership and mining as a whole. I believe that’s one area the mining companies need to focus on; arming the young graduates with leadership skills to set them up for success, especially when they enter the industry. In my case, I had to manage these men who were sometimes older or even had children older than me. I had to resolve conflicts, give direction, and manage performance; additionally, because we ran an alternating-week shift system my body struggled to adjust. There were situations where I had to tolerate men who saw me as a wife rather than a co-worker, which sharply contrasts my experience in Australia.
Another challenge was the lack of toilets underground, as a woman I had to look for a dark place behind the pillars to help myself. You can imagine having to take off all your PPEs, lamps, and rescue packs, it was indeed a mission for a woman underground. Also, largely due to my lack of leadership skills, I ended up doing things I could have delegated, which work was physically demanding, which made it more daunting. This is why I mentioned earlier that it was essential to equip and train young graduates on leadership.
One other challenge I had at that time was a lack of mentorship as there were no female professionals at the mine so I had there nobody to draw inspiration or learn from. Lastly, because of the remoteness of typical mining operations, I only saw my husband during the weekends, as I was at work from Monday to Friday. In fact, I jokingly called our marriage “a weekend marriage”.
After three years, I was sponsored to go to Australia by my company, where I gained both surface and underground mining experience. In surface mining, I served as a truck and shovel engineer, but I later moved underground to become a mine planning engineer. Within 2 months of being in that role, I got promoted and moved up to the role of the operational planning specialist which is a role I truly enjoy.
CIM: Why did you consider a post graduate diploma in business and why was it important?
I wanted to continue with my studies owing to my love for academics, however, I was unsure of what to do. I then decided to speak with different people about my options and after about two years, I finally found the right course of study. I am glad I waited to decide because in those two years I got to learn more about the industry and the different career paths. I also learned more about myself; my strengths, my weaknesses, what I enjoy, and most importantly, my knowledge gaps. Due to my work in the mine as an Operational Planning Specialist, I realized the need to increase my business acumen. I needed to understand what goes on in marketing, HR, how to deal with people, transactions, and how the commercial space works. Funny enough, I thought I was more of an engineer, but I think “money speaks more sense to me” so I really enjoy the business component of things and I would like to go into commercial strategy. My next plan is to pursue a master’s degree
CIM: What graduate development program brought you into the industry, what was the process & is it applicable in different parts of the world
Most mining companies offer a graduate development program because it is an essential talent pipeline for the organization. In my experience, most mining companies in South Africa offer such opportunities. The company’s website provides adequate information on such programs. In my case, during my 4th year of study, I applied on the Anglo-American website for the program, I went through the interviews, and I was very fortunate to have been selected. I would recommend that final-year students apply extensively for job placements, graduate programs or internships so that they can get signed on in their fourth year and start working once done with school. This system is applicable in a lot of countries.
CIM: Why did you choose mining and do you regret it, how did you navigate your path as a woman in this field, considering that mining is a male-dominated field?
To be very honest, I would say I got into Mining Engineering by chance. At the time when I was to make the decision of what to study in the University, I had limited access to the internet because I was living in a rural area. I was only conversant with careers like teaching, medicine and I wanted to be a psychologist or a teacher. One day, I went to my geography teacher and explained my confusion to her I enjoy rocks, nature, geological, and mineral formations. She advised me to go for geology as I did not enjoy science and Mathematics, I was more of a theoretical person.
I applied for Geology, but when I got the admission, I was also given the option of mining engineering. My instinct told me to choose mining. Whatever happened, I believe it happened because God knew best. I look back now and it was the best career choice I had ever made. My journey as a mining engineer has been both challenging, but it has been fulfilling.
However, realizing that there were no female role models to look up to was a very difficult experience. For me, it was a matter of understanding that I am probably standing there for the 500 women that are still coming. Even though it was easier to back out because women were not present, the thought that there are probably 50 more women that might see my story tomorrow and be inspired by it.
There were nights when I would have emotional breakdowns just because of the anxiety of going to work on a Sunday night to begin a shift. Leaving the family behind in the city and travelling all the way but I think the mindset needs to change and we need to be stronger as women.
CIM: From your experience, can you give us an idea of the monetary benefits/remuneration earned by a graduate Mining Engineer
I always say that mining is not for everyone, so money should not be a motivating factor. The work is very demanding, it could get very tough and stressful due to long hours of work. I believe that no amount of money will compensate for a lack of work-life balance. It will not compensate for poor mental health, so you need to be aware of those elements before choosing a mining career.
I know the salary between South Africa and Australia is a little bit different. As a graduate in South Africa, your salary is about 18,000 rand to 25,000 rands, probably an average of 22,000 rands. Once you are off the graduate program, I think your take-home would be around 30,000 to 35,000 rand.
CIM: How did you transition from being a graduate Engineer to an Operation Planning Specialist?
There are a number of different career paths you can follow in the mining space. You can go through the production route, where you’re majorly monitoring operations, supervising, and managing people.
As a graduate, you can also start working underground as a shift supervisor, then go up the ladder to become a shift boss. As a shift boss, you work on the surface but still go underground for an average of 3 hours in a shift just to check the shift supervisor’s work.
From shift boss, you move up to become a mine overseer. In this case, you will probably be looking after a couple of sections underground.
In my case, we had five sections, so as a mine overseer, you will be looking after two or three sections. Again, you probably don’t go underground that much at this level.
From mine overseer, you can become a mine manager, now you will be overseeing the whole mine.
Different countries will have different hierarchical systems or structural systems.
However, there are certifications required to get into these roles. To get underground you need a blasting certificate and to become a competent personnel, you’ll need the competency certificate. Writing these exams can be lengthy and very stressful.
CIM: What would you do differently if you were to start afresh?
I think the first one would be not to take myself too seriously. You can take life seriously, but not yourself; I think.
I needed someone at that time to tell me that I needed to accept that I would fail along the way. I needed to open myself to ridicule because part of not taking oneself seriously is welcoming criticisms.
You’re not afraid to make mistakes. Sometimes we worry about things that may never happen, so we close the doors on ourselves and we limit our possibilities.
The second one would be to fail, but fail fast and fail often. I think this is a good one for me, though it took me time to realize it. To succeed, we must be open to failure, that’s the only way we’re going to learn. You need to do it fast and do it often as well.
The intention is to ensure that we are learning from our mistakes and we are making necessary corrections as we grow.
So, I think that the most important one is that fail fast and fail often because you need it for your development.
CIM: Can you give us a context of where you failed fast and often within your journey?
I think one of the things I struggled with was my lack of experience. As an underground supervisor, with little or no experience, leading men with experience was daunting for me. I most times did not tell them about their mistakes because I was too afraid of their reactions. I remember a situation where I noticed a mistake as they bolted the roof underground but I overlooked it because I was afraid. I only hoped the shift boss would not notice the mistake when he comes to check up. Well, the unexpected happened, he told me to tell the men I was supervising to redo the work. I had to do what I didn’t want to do at first, and time had already been wasted.
CIM: What does your present job as an operation planning specialist in Australia entail?
As an Operation Planning Specialist, my role is tailored towards planning production in the mine. I draw out and deploy the most optimal strategy to ensure that the mine meets its annual business targets. Annually, we are vested with a particular production target from the head office in London. So, I answer the questions of; what strategy to deploy and what threats may negatively impact the successful implementation of our strategies?
I find this role exciting as it is a brownfield project (a new mine yet at an advanced development stage). A highlight of the project is that it is the first mine in Australia to mine using two sets of automated Longwall systems.
CIM: What is the way forward in the industry and what new opportunities are available in Australia
Millicent: Though, some would say that the future of mining is no mining at all because of its environmental impacts. However, I think that mining will not go away as demands for resources grow due to the ever-growing (world) population.
It’s not a question of if mining is going to be around, rather, how can mining change to ensure sustainability?
I think the sustainable future of mining is simply smart mining; these are mines that are efficient to operate, ensure the safety of workers, and have minimal impact on the environment.
We’re getting to that era where everything would be pretty much automated in the mine and I’ve seen Australia’s mining industry make heads-way in terms of automation. BHP, one of Australia’s biggest mine companies have about 50% driverless, operating them from the surface.
Generally, the mining industry has evolved from what it used to be, for example, we transitioned from manual drillers to using electric-powered drillers.
In addition, due to the increase in the adoption of technology by the mining industry transition into smart mining, the education and technical skillset of Mining Engineers would have to change, more multidisciplined than ever.
It is important to know that, presently, most mines are opting to employ data analysts, AI, and machine learning specialists, software and application developers who know little to nothing about mining, as only a few Mining Engineers have these tech-related skills.
This makes it imperative for Mining Engineers to be equipped with skills such as Design, programming, handling big data, and Artificial Intelligence, as these skills will be in high demand for a long time in the mining industry.
Coupled with these tech skills, Mining Engineers would need to be more analytical in their thinking, innovative, and have a critical analysis approach to problem-solving, express high emotional intelligence, resilience, and flexibility.
We have learnt flexibility in this COVID time as many have been required to work from home. Therefore, the onus lies on you to be productive working from home as much as you would be when working at the office or field.
One other important change mining must make is to improve the lives of hosting communities as obtaining social licensing is becoming more of an uphill battle.
CIM: Do you think a mine would employ a mining engineer with computer skills or a data scientist that would have to come to the mine to learn about mining and then apply his computer skills
Even though the demand for tech skills is on the increase in the mining industry, Mining Engineers are still very much needed for their technical expertise, however, having AI or programming skills would be a beautiful icing on the cake.
For instance, in my present role, I provide guidance for Modeling Specialists through the technical experience I have gained when I worked underground.
They completely have no mining experience, so I assist them in providing information about the value chain, which is used in modelling.
The role of the mining engineer can’t be underestimated in the mine. However, it is becoming imperative to be equipped with these tech skills as it would be helpful for the successful transitioning of Mining Engineers into the Technology space we are heading into soon.
CIM: What are the Non-Technical Opportunities within the Industry and how interested candidates take advantage of these opportunities?
The mining industry needs paramedics, lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and many more. Mining is a cross multidisciplinary field and there are different ways to get into the mining industry as a professional without a mining education or technical experience.
You can enroll for short online Mining courses that could take about 12 months. Going into Project management is a viable option to get into management roles. Mines also employ for short-term contracts, 25% of the workforce of most mining companies are permanent employees while the rest are contractors.
The mining value chain is very broad, which gives room for people without a mining educational background.
CIM: What steps should be taken to relocate to Australia from other countries?
There are multiple ways to go about a successful relocation. I applied for my first Australian job on LinkedIn, the company came to South Africa to conduct the interview at that time. Most job interviews are now online. I got two opportunities then, as the company I was working with in South Africa expressed their interest to send me to Australia.
I took up the offer with my company since I could have an internal relocation as well. My visa and my flight, my family relocation, cost of boarding were covered by my company.
If you work in a mining company in your country which has a branch in Australia, you can request a transfer.
It takes about three months to get an Australian visa, so the requirements you need a visa to come to Australia.
But to get a visa you need to get a passport and then apply for a visa. Due to COVID, Australia has been on lockdown since March 2020, the borders are closed and can only be opened to people with essential travelling.
You can either apply for a visa yourself and then apply for a mining job or apply for the job first, then the company assists with your visa application.
It’s crucial to know that companies take more interest in you if you already have an Australian visa. I have heard scenarios where people got rejections because they did not have the right working documents.
In most cases, you need to get your visa first before applying for a job. There are very few cases where you get the job first and then the company pays.
You can either apply for a graduate visa or a temporary work visa. You can utilize the services of an agent, who would help you with the whole application process for the visa.
Requirements for a visa application are: English competency test (IELTS), police clearance, and medical certificate. As a graduate, you need two years of experience in your country before you can come to Australia, even if you’re not a graduate, you still need two years of experience.
On a few occasions, you might need a skills assessment done by a professional body that governs your field. Your educational documents would also be assessed to know if it fits the Australian standard.
Disclaimer: Millicent is not in any way an immigration officer; she has however given her advice based on her experience. All information should be confirmed on the appropriate websites before taking necessary actions.