Celebrating remote success stories 

Christine Charles (above), the Hon Fred Chaney AO (below), and Des Rogers (bottom)

Employment success stories in regional and remote Australia were celebrated during the Charles Darwin Symposium in Alice Springs.

The symposium focused on the topic: A skilled workforce for regional and remote Australia: keeping, attracting and training.

Success stories were showcased by Christine Charles, Regional Director, Environment and Social Responsibility, Newmont, Australia, the Hon Fred Chaney AO, of Reconciliation Australia and Desert Knowledge Australia, as well as Mr Des Rogers, of pepperedBLACK®.

Christine Charles, who spoke on the topic “Environmental and social responsibility – our social licence to operate”, outlined the gold producer’s approach to its employees and the wider Australian community.

She said that the mining industry has had to develop new understandings, new skills and new ways of doing business, particularly as it interacted with Indigenous communities.

“Social change and community aspirations, particularly Indigenous communities, will not be driven solely by financial benefit. Instead they demand a balance between economic growth, social cohesion, cultural strength and environmental stewardship,” Ms Charles said.

Highlighting the staffing difficulties experienced by industry in the current tight labour market, Ms Charles said that during the past few years in Australia the working age population (18-64) had increased by 170,000 each year.

“Based on current trends, the ABS estimates that for the entire decade of the 2020s the working age population will grow by only 125,000.

“These statistics have been a key driver in seeking to better understand our own employment demographics and to look to areas where future labour sources can be found.”

The current high turnover of staff in the industry was attributed to the fact that the fly-in fly-out lifestyle had a shelf life for most Australians, as well as competition for staff from other employers.

She said Newmont was responding to the challenge of attracting and retaining staff at its remote sites by creating a balance between economic growth, social cohesion, cultural strength, environmental stewardship and in seizing opportunities.

“There are three key areas of opportunity that offer the potential to address our skills shortage. But as a company, and as an industry, we must be prepared to develop new understandings, adopt new skills and consider new ways of doing business.

“Those opportunities are: women, older workers and the local Indigenous community.”

Ms Charles said Newmont was focusing on implementing regional partnership agreements in three mine site areas – Wiluna, which takes in the Jundee mine site, Boddington, for the BGM project, and Tanami Gold Mine in the Northern Territory Tanami desert.

These three sites were among a number of pilot sites identified when a memorandum of understanding on Indigenous employment and business development was signed with the Australian Government in June 2005.

The MOU represented new government policy approaches using local partnerships and collaborations; whole-of-government approach across all governments; and local solutions to local issues and devolved decision-making.

“It is based on the principles of: respect for culture, customs and values; collaboration and partnership between member companies, Indigenous people and governments at all levels; and shared vision, goals and commitment,” she said.

Women also provided a relatively untapped source of staff for the mining industry.

Ms Charles said that in the minerals industry, the statistics were stark.

“Women comprise only 18 per cent of the total minerals industry workforce, which includes corporate office employees, site employees and a number of key service providers to the industry. As such it includes the high numbers of clerical and administrative personnel located in corporate offices as well as other non-technical roles.”

This compared with a national participation rate for women of 45 per cent.

“Focusing specifically on mine sites and minerals processing operations, women represent three per cent of all employees, with the majority of these in administrative, catering or non-technical roles.”

Although the figures on Indigenous employment had improved markedly across the minerals industry in the past decade, it was clear that gender diversity was an issue among Indigenous employees as well, with women comprising only 12 per cent of all Indigenous employees.

Researchers suggested, however, that 15 per cent was the level at which a minority culture could begin to affect changes in the nature of the dominant culture of an organisation.

“They argue that the creation of a critical mass is necessary to generate sufficient impetus for change, and to provide the necessary support mechanisms for those who are advocates of change,” Ms Charles said.

“It is not merely critical mass, however, that dissolves the treatment of women as a token minority group, but rather it is the critical acts that occur both within and around the organisation.”

These critical acts included how much support women received from people in positions of authority, as well as how much they were able to support each other and encourage both men and women, with similar perspectives on the workplace culture, to intervene as a group to affect the organisational agenda for change.

“Women value opportunities to network, they favour organisations with expressed value systems, and recognise the importance of flexibility and family-friendly work practices.

“Therefore, rather than seeking to establish a common target for women’s employment, it is more important for organisations to recognise that women represent over 50% of the available employment pool, that there is a clear business case for their employment, and that positive outcomes can be achieved by having a workforce diversity that matches the diversity of the communities in which we operate, including both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women,” she said.

During the session, both Fred Chaney and Des Rogers spoke about their success stories with the Indigenous communities.

Mr Chaney said that some employers were showing a capacity to lift employment beyond “the current inadequate norm”. Analysing and celebrating the elements of success helped to spread best practice which included strong leadership from the top, overt cultural respect leading to mutual respect, and the creation of relationships in line with modern industrial relations thinking.

“Employers, including government, should be encouraged to set clear employment and related issue goals with clear accountability for results. Reconciliation Action Plans are one means of achieving the required focus to drive improvement,” Mr Chaney said.

Des Rogers is Director of Indigenous Perspectives, a small consultancy business providing professional assistance to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. As an example of his work, Mr Rogers was the Indigenous relations manager for the catering company on the Alice Springs to Darwin railway and achieved 35 per cent Indigenous employment level. He has been engaged by a variety of organisations to provide mentoring support to a range of Aboriginal people in management and executive positions.

Mr Rogers also is a director of pepperedBLACK® security, the NT’s first Aboriginal-owned and managed security business. This new enterprise has a number of contracts in Alice Springs and has a staff of eight Indigenous and six non-Indigenous people.

“It is necessary to educate mainstream society to understand that for every story of dysfunction in Aboriginal society there is another of quiet success,” he said.

His key points to success included:

  • Education leading to real employment was the key to true empowerment of Aboriginal people
  • Educators must be taught the importance of teaching a full curriculum to students in remote communities and avoid the concept that the students will never leave their communities
  • That English is the second language for many students must not be confused with a lack of intelligence or academic ability. There was a need, however, for Indigenous people to use the English language to become a part of society
  • For any program to succeed, it must involve Aboriginal men to be active and supportive participants
  • Education was the way forward for Indigenous people so they might master the lore of modern society.