Students like Sophie Allen are choosing degrees based on the contribution they can make to slowing global warming.
Sophie Allen’s first great love – her first career choice – was always going to be music. But underwhelmed by her undergraduate study, she made an about-turn and enrolled in science.
It was when she took geology as an elective subject that her future suddenly took shape. She would play a role in addressing climate change in precisely the field that has been shunned by many of her generation because of its association with fossil fuels.
Sophie Allen, a geology honours student at Monash University, sees a career in mining as a way to help slow global warming.  Eamon Gallagher
“I’m passionate about getting more young people into the mining sector and changing the perception that mining is about coal and gas. It is integral to moving towards net zero and that is what everyone wants, right?” says Allen, 24.
Or as Resources Minister Madeleine King has succinctly put it: “There’s no net zero without mining.”
It’s a topic that has economist Rod Sims hot under the collar.
“I reckon if you asked most youngsters about their career, a large number would say they want to do something that helps climate change. But virtually none of them would think that doing chemical engineering, metallurgy, geoscience or getting an electrical trade would help with that. But it’s essential,” the former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says.
“There needs to be wide recognition that if you want to help
reduce world emissions significantly, these are the jobs to be in.”
Wind turbines, like these off the coast of Norway, require a mining industry to get built. 
It is as simple as this: steel and aluminium are used in the construction of turbines and solar panels; copper is used in renewable energy systems including solar, hydro, thermal and wind energy; lithium is used in rechargeable batteries for laptops, mobile phones and electric cars; cobalt, nickel and graphite are essential to new-generation batteries.
Sims’ argument is: Australia is on a path to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. If successful, that will reduce global emissions by just 1.3 per cent. But Australia’s clear comparative advantage – size, richness in renewables and abundant minerals critical to decarbonisation – means we could contribute 6 to 9 per cent.
“Just as Western Australia benefitted from the iron ore boom when the opportunity presented itself 10 to 15 years ago, today we can benefit enormously and for much longer from the need for Australia to export a range of zero carbon products,” Sims told an energy conference in Perth last month.
Those products include green versions of iron, aluminium, urea, transport fuels and polysilicon.
In his book The Superpower Transformation, economist Ross Garnaut argues that in addition to exporting green hydrogen, Australia is in a prime position to become a big exporter of carbon-neutral manufactured goods.
Understandably, global demand for ore and minerals that are central to the green economy is on the rise as the 72 countries which have committed to net zero targets scramble to reach their goals.
The Energy Transitions Commission, a British-based think tank, has estimated that over the next 27 years, “the energy transition could require the production of 6.5 billion tonnes of end-use materials, 95 per cent of which would be steel, copper and aluminium”.
There will also be increased demand for critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, graphite or rare earths, but in much smaller quantities.
“This cumulative material extraction compares with the over 8 billion tonnes of coal currently extracted annually,” a report into resource requirements for the energy transition says.
The report examines supply side issues, but does not address skill shortages.
While there are plentiful raw materials across the world, and Australia is one of the largest current and future producers of many of them, the problem will be in getting them out of the ground.
Undergraduate geoscience enrolments in Australia fell from 3230 in 2013 to 1900 in 2021.
First, the upside: some universities are reporting growth in first-year geology enrolments. The University of NSW, for example, is up by 30 per cent. Curtin University graduated just three bachelor of metallurgical engineers last year, and hopes the number will be five this year.
Geology enrolments are up at the University of NSW. Louise Kennerley
Most students who decide on a career in geoscience usually enter it via an honours or master’s science program. In 2021, 225 people graduated from such degrees compared to 330 in 2012-13.
Experts say that is probably just enough to meet industry needs.
As for mining engineers, there were just 97 graduates nationally last year, up from 87 in 2021, but massively below the 333 who graduated in 2015. However, with the University of Southern Queensland set to enter the market with a three-year bachelor’s of engineering technology (mining) next year, numbers could improve.
In the trades, electricians are in strong demand nationally, but high attrition rates of 40 to 50 per cent take a toll on supply.
The World Economic Forum has estimated that the green workforce comprises just 1 per cent of total employment across 10 countries it examined, including Australia.
The WEF estimates that Australia needs to increase its green workforce by 21 per cent by 2030, including a 57 per cent increase in miners, quarriers and mining managers. However, we are in a considerably better position than most of the other countries it scrutinised in meeting skills needs for a green economy. Only the US was relatively well positioned.
Jobs and Skills Australia has identified a handful of jobs that are critical to the mining sector. They include engineers of most descriptions – mining, chemical, civil and electrical – alongside geologists and geophysicists, metallurgists, metal machinists and fabricators, fitters, welders, electricians and environmental health officers.
In a discussion paper on Australia’s clean energy workforce, Jobs and Skills Australia reiterates the point that without an appropriately skilled workforce, we will be a road to nowhere for the decarbonised future.
“Australia is reshaping the way we generate, use and export our energy. Significant investments in clean energy technology and the electrification of our houses, vehicles and industries will help reduce emissions and cut power costs,” the paper says.
“However, this transition will not be possible without a workforce that is equipped with the right skills.”
Romilly Madew, chief executive of Engineers Australia, says numbers across all engineering disciplines have been stagnating in recent years, and all contribute to the minerals sector, not just mining-specific ones.
The mining industry faces a labour shortage. Getty
“As far as we are aware, there are no students being turned away from any program due to a lack of places and the unis have capacity to expand their programs if the demand is there,” Madew says.
“Anecdotally, we are seeing graduates coming through who are more environmentally conscious and this plays a part in them considering what industries they join and what work they undertake.”
Reskilling could be part of the solution. In the 2021 census there were 90,000 workers in emissions-intensive industries, of which more than half worked in coal mining. However, Jobs and Skills Australia estimates that job opportunities in the clean energy sector will be abundant, will probably outnumber the current emissions-intensive workforce, and about half the jobs could easily transition to the green economy with minimal upskilling.
In the near future, institutions will need to develop “new, exclusive clean-energy focused qualification, the incorporation of clean energy skills and knowledge into existing skills (such as ensuring all electrical apprentices are skills in rooftop solar installation and maintenance) and ensuring a sufficient supply of graduates in generalised courses that will experience increased demand, such as engineering and science”.
Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Tania Constable says inspiring the next generation of young people to enter the mining industry “starts with young people’s circle of influence – their parents, careers advisers and teachers. We need to equip them to be advocates for the mining industry”.
There are some programs under way. The federal government’s new energy apprenticeship program provides up to $10,000 for eligible people over their apprenticeship in clean energy jobs, such as electrotechnology, which is integral to the installation of solar panels.
However, the future rests on the shoulders of people like Allen who can clearly see their role in mining as essential to decarbonisation.
The Monash University honours student, who is employed at Rio Tinto’s Bundoora Technical Development Centre two days a week running analytics on scanning electron microscopes, hopes that next year she will embark on a career as an exploration geologist.
“I love being outside and working with my hands. I also love that geology is all about understanding systems, and you take bits and pieces, big and small observations and stitch them together to create a story of a mineral system.”
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