As Tom Butcher reports in this issue of The Crucible, by 2026, Australia is projected to need 24,400 more workers in its mining industry. But the numbers of graduates on Australia’s mineral and mining engineering courses has dwindled in the past decade. Dr Steve Hill , Chief Scientist at Geoscience Australia tells the MMTA how Australia could tackle this skills shortage.
How well are geology and geoscience education and training in Australia able to serve the changing and growing needs of new and emerging technologies for critical raw materials ̶ and especially critical metals?
In short, we do well with the quality but struggle with sustainable quantity.
Traditionally this has ebbed and flowed in the past, where there have been waves of “boom” in the resources industry with high demand from industry for graduates followed by down times with a low demand. The university geoscience departments have struggled to be sustainable through these waves, and typically a few departments close their geoscience offerings in each down time.
There have been some great initiatives to try to address this problem including the Minerals Council of Australia supporting courses, such as at Honours level and more recently a school for recent graduates that helps to upskill people with instruction from industry leaders. Some universities have looked at diversifying their geoscience offerings and strengthening environmental science related courses, but this change has been slow to take effect.
There do seem to be other factors that also operate as we see equivalent challenges in less resource-orientated courses. For instance, our geospatial / surveying part of geoscience is also challenged by low student numbers relative to the nation’s demands, and in the space industry it has been difficult to find enough adequately skills graduates. This could be in part because of what seem to be inherent challenges of attracting enough students into STEM streams.
Are there gaps that need to be closed – and what needs to happen to achieve this?
Gaps typically manifest around new technologies and opportunities, such as space and environment, and how they can be integrated as part of a more holistic, Earth-system perspective to geoscience. This is partly because it’s more difficult for universities to easily take on the risk of new things when they are also taking on the risk of recognition and sustainability of their existence. A large part of this links to social perceptions and pathways into geoscience across the community and at pre-university education levels. There is also the balance between exposing students to the fundamentals of geoscience (things like how to identify and describe Earth materials, and the fundamental value of fieldwork) and at the same time bringing in new applications and knowledge. Although a big challenge here is around time constraints within courses and resourcing new things, another challenge comes from academics providing course offerings that are mostly aligned to their research interests or else the fundamentals that they were exposed to as students.
An example of where we have seen this challenge is with students to being exposed to how to understand and work with the weathered and sediment covered geological systems that make up over 80% of our onshore nation. This is what has been called the regolith. Although most of what we live with in Australia is regolith, we have very few graduates trained in how to understand and work with these materials, yet they provide the soils, groundwaters, building materials and landscape expressions of buried minerals that we are all exposed to every day.
One of the problems is that many geology academics also didn’t learn much about these materials when they were students and therefore don’t fully realise that this gap exists. Perhaps one of the solutions here is that universities think about the diversity of their academics in areas such as subject expertise but especially people that have also worked outside of the university system for a while (many university lecturers have pretty much gone from being a student into teaching and research roles at university with little direct exposure to other career paths and experiences).
A major shortfall in identifying gaps in our geoscience is that we don’t have a well-developed “map” of the capabilities and capacity of geoscience across both our nation and even across universities. We recently did this sort of mapping at Geoscience Australia, and it was great for identifying gaps, dependencies and areas that are at risk because of low capacity (such as single points of failure from an individual staff member covering an expertise capability).
One advantage of identifying gaps is that you can then consider whether to cover it through your own staff recruitment or try to find it via collaboration. Unfortunately, most universities don’t have a well-defined capability and capacity profile in geoscience that we can line up against. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we had a shovel-ready capability and capacity map of Australian geoscience, and we knew where our expertise lies and where it is under threat or absent!
What are the routes to geoscience education? How well does general education prepare prospective students for this route, and how can we attract more young talent into the field?
For the most part geoscience education is funneled into the university level, although there are a few key groups looking to increase the student exposure at secondary and primary school levels.
Attracting more probably largely depends on how we are seen within the community beyond only people in hi-vis going in and out of holes in the ground. Our world’s greatest challenges are about how well we understand the Earth and how we live with it … this is not well recognised by society. We have a poor understanding of how the Earth works and about things such as resource supply chains (i.e. they ultimately come from the Earth… it’s a bit like discussions from when I was a kid that needed to explain that milk comes from cows and not from a refrigerator in the supermarket). Our future electric cars, smart phones and even fundamental water, food and shelter ultimately come from the Earth (and we shouldn’t forget that).
Are there any specific programmes aimed at educating the new generation of geologists – are they accessible to students from across the country, and how successfully are they meeting this need?
At Geoscience Australia we currently provide programs for primary and early secondary school visits to our education centre as well as education and teaching materials (videos, teaching notes, student resources) online. We have some new pilot programs that take the learnings and materials of our major programs, such as Exploring for the Future into regional, remote and First Nation communities.
There are also a range of other geoscience education groups that provide teaching support and materials (particularly recognising that many teachers don’t have confidence and experience of teaching geoscience content in schools), as well as different industry- and university-based programs. One of the big challenges here is the need for national coordination of effort rather than having a series of discrete, disconnected and uncoordinated programs.
Do you expect to see increased investment in geoscience and its education from the recently published Australian Critical Minerals Strategy? Where could it be successfully targeted?
Yes, but it would be good to see it led from foresight and planning rather than a needed emergency response. An opportunity that needs to be further developed is how we can best support our sovereign skills and experience.
There was not a major emphasis on providing support specifically for geoscience education in Australia in this Strategy, however the societal need and the recognition is likely to have an influence.
Is there a need for Australia to attract geological expertise internationally – and are you seeing Australian-trained geologists working more internationally?
Yes, we have a small population but with large and diverse needs. International skills and knowledge is an essential ingredient to meet our challenges. This can include direct employment, but probably more important is partnership and collaboration both within Australia but also internationally. Australia has some fantastic international collaboration with international partners through government, research and industry.
What programmes/projects in the field of critical minerals research is Geoscience Australia working on that could be exciting for a new generation of geologists?
There are lots of examples from our Minerals, Energy and Groundwater (MEG) Division and Exploring for the Future, but it’s also important to highlight the wider contributions across Geoscience Australia that consider the wider Earth System. For example, our geospatial programs via Digital Atlas of Australia and Digital Earth Australia, and our outreach and education programs and having them integrated with research programs is also important. Too often outreach and engagement is seen as something that sits quite distinct and separate to research … it shouldn’t be like that.
Interview by Polina Sparks, MMTA