Northern Star Resources boss Stuart Tonkin says the resources sector needs to do more to promote the positive role it plays across society, not least to ensure it can attract the next generation of skilled workers.
Addressing a packed Melbourne Mining Club function this week, Mr Tonkin said there remained a general lack of awareness and understanding of how the resources sector contributed positively to society.
This, in turn, added to the difficulty the sector faced in attracting the next generation to pursue a career in mining.
Northern Star (ASX: NST) is the second-largest listed gold producer in Australia and last financial year sold 1,561,000 ounces from its three production centres: Kalgoorlie and Yandal in Western Australia and Pogo in Canada.
The Perth-based miner is also one of the largest mining sector employers with a workforce of about 6000 employees and contractors. Northern Star’s workforce includes about 300 geologists, 200 engineers and more than 50 metallurgists and surveyors.
Like its peers, Northern Star is dealing with an acute skills shortage and the challenge of securing the next generation of workers.
Mr Tonkin joined the mining sector as a 17-year-old when he started studying engineering at the WA School of Mines in Kalgoorlie on a scholarship offered to him by contracting firm Eltin.
Delivering a well-received keynote address in front of more than 500 mining and capital markets leaders in the Melbourne Town Hall on Thursday, Mr Tonkin said the two “real issues facing the sector” were sentiment and skills, which he said were linked.
“The sentiment piece is that there is confusion out there as to what we do as a resources sector and why we are necessary,” Mr Tonkin said.
“I think we have to do a lot more to promote our relevance. There are some great initiatives by (the sector) in telling our story and explaining that but we need to drag and bring along a lot of people to understand the significance and importance and why, globally, (society) needs the resources sector to be strong, fit, safe and environmentally responsible.”
Mr Tonkin said this included highlighting the rewards a successful resources sector delivered society.
He said the annual sustainability reports produced by companies like Northern Star were great documents that highlighted many of the sector’s positive achievements but the audience for those reports “is quite finite”.
“We need to reach further and get the general rhetoric out there that people look for us for help and understand that we will modernise and deliver the minerals that society needs in the future to develop,” Mr Tonkin said.
“The skills piece is … linked to the sentiment. If you sit around a barbeque and (someone asks you) ‘what do you do’ and (you reply) ‘I am miner’, they walk of.
“You really want to see that people are proud to be involved and are attracted to (the sector). And the education piece, early days, feeds into those skills.
“We can always pay more and import those skills and do these things but it is something we reliably, always, through the cycles, need to invest in.
“For the students who are here (at the Melbourne Mining Club function) and looking and seeing what the sector can be, we also need to feed it back into the sentiment piece (to make sure) people are proud of the sector they are entering and not face that societal backlash that we do see.”
Northern Star disclosed in its 2022 Sustainability Report that the number of graduates, undergraduates, trainees, vacation students and interns had almost trebled year-on-year from 138 to 326 though the number of apprentices had fallen from 92 in FY21 to 73. In total, 159 Northern Star employees participated in leadership development training during FY22.
Northern Star funds 12 five-year university degrees as part of campaigns run by MADALAH, a not-for-profit organisation that provides opportunities for Indigenous students from remote and regional Western Australia to attend boarding school and then university in Perth, and last year also sponsored 11 scholarship university students in a variety of disciplines.