WA’s largest mining contractor has backed an Aboriginal training scheme that is delivering impressive results.
When Michelle McAullay joined Byrnecut in 2017, the privately owned mining contractor had just three indigenous employees.
Today it has nearly 160, with more than 90 per cent of those being unemployed before signing up. This growth provides one measure of success for Byrnecut’s indigenous training arm, BOAB, which stands for Building Opportunities for Aboriginal Business.
BOAB is one of many organisations in the mining sector focused on recruitment and training of Aboriginal workers. It is particularly notable for two reasons.
Many of Byrnecut’s operations are in the Goldfields, a region where the mining industry historically has been less engaged with Aboriginal people and less successful in recruiting Aboriginal workers.
It compares poorly to the Pilbara, where the big iron ore miners have been industry leaders in Aboriginal engagement.
Byrnecut is also a specialist underground contractor, a market segment seen as particularly difficult to attract Aboriginal recruits.
“The purpose was to try and recruit indigenous people into the workforce, for us and third parties,” Mr Coughlan told Business News.
“It’s been ticking over for about 10 or 15 years, well before this became flavour-of-the-month stuff.
“There was a sense of need, plus it’s the right thing to do.
“I saw a business model in it, anyway.
“A lot of companies talk about it but do nothing; we chose to get real and put people on the ground and try and make it happen.”
Ms McAullay took over the running of Global Mine Training in 2015, and three years ago rebranded it as BOAB.
“Michelle has taken it to another level through her efforts and capability,” Mr Coughlan said.
Ms McAullay’s success with BOAB was recognised recently when she won an indigenous engagement award, as part of the annual awards run by IFAP: the Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention.
BOAB has also won a Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia award for outstanding company initiative.
Byrnecut has achieved rapid growth over the past few years. It employs 5,500 people across 13 countries.
That includes 3,800 people in Western Australia, which makes it the largest mining services company in the state, according to Business News’s Data & Insights.
It sits just ahead of contractors such as MACA, Perenti Global and NRW Holdings.
Mr Coughlan said the group’s global growth had lifted consolidated revenue to $2 billion in the 2020 calendar year, up from just $900 million in 2015.
“The main growth area in that period has been Australia,” he said.
Recent wins include a contract at Galena Mining’s Abra base metals project in the Pilbara, and a five-year agreement with Wiluna Mining Corporation.
In South Australia, OZ Minerals has contracted Byrnecut to sink a 1,300- metre shaft at the Prominent Hill copper mine.
Byrnecut will also undertake work at Newcrest’s Havieron project in the Pilbara and has been working at the Cadia gold mine in NSW.
Mr Coughlan said the group’s international operations have largely been treading water during COVID-19, but that was starting to change.
The group recently expanded into Canada and Namibia and is preferred contractor for two projects in northern Africa.
To support its growth, Byrnecut operates a range of recruitment and training programs.
It takes on about 1,000 inductees every year to help it deal with 20 per cent staff turnover
“People think they want to go underground mining but they don’t necessarily like the 12-hour shifts or being away from home, so the attrition rate is quite high in the first 12 months,” Mr Coughlan said.
“Twenty per cent [turnover] is not too bad, believe it or not.”
He said Byrnecut was loath to rely on higher wages to attract and retain staff.
“We don’t want to get into a wages spiral because it’s basically a death spiral,” he said.
Instead the focus is on training.
The contractor has about 600 apprentices on its books, and also invests in upskilling its employees through an internal registered training organisation.
“We hope they stay with us because we put the effort into them, and it’s the sense of accomplishment as well,” Mr Coughlan said.
He recognised that sustainable progress with Aboriginal recruitment would only come with larger numbers of people.
“You need to get some critical mass,” Mr Coughlan said.
“One indigenous person at a mine site can be a bit daunting for them; they have no-one to talk to or understand their culture.
“We’ve always had the view that we need to get critical mass so there is a group that provides its own internal support.”
Ms McAullay brought wide experience to Byrnecut when she joined as a general manager.
A Yamatji Nunda woman, she grew up in the Mid West, everywhere between Perth and Shark Bay.
Her professional experience includes working as a bank manager and for a law firm.
She was business development manager for the Njamal group in Port Hedland, helping to set up Aboriginal building company.
That was followed by a period as business development manager at the Wirrpanda Foundation, which operates a wide range of schooling and pre-employment programs.
This role included approaching big corporates including Shell and Rio Tinto, which support the foundation.
Ms McAullay said her diverse professional background was a big help at BOAB, which focused on the soft skills needed by new Aboriginal recruits.
“My programs are really different, they are very real,” Ms McAullay told Business News.
“Engaging with the participants to start with is a big thing.
“I get to know them during the training.”
Ms McAullay said BOAB targeted people who were completely unemployed, hence the need to help with the transition to work.
“Soft skilling plays a big role in our pre-employment programs,” she said.
“A lot of companies just do the training, but it’s not just learning to operate the equipment.
“We discuss the impact of travelling away for work, and the impact on family life.
“We talk about basic budgeting; a lot of these people are going from $250 a week to several thousand a week.”
Other topics include workplace health and safety, drugs and alcohol, health and fitness, and culture.
Ms McAullay got a laugh from Mr Coughlan when she said her new program included taking the recruits out fishing.
“The BOAB programs are fun,” she said.
“They learn because they are not bored, they don’t fall asleep.”
BOAB acts as an information broker for recruits, providing information on how to connect with people like their bank manager.
Ms McAullay also promotes Ruah Community Services, which provides an array of services, including counselling.
“I open up that door for them to go and have a chat with the counsellors,” she said.
BOAB’s recruits start with entry-level roles driving dump trucks. Some have moved up to apprenticeships in heavy diesel and electrical.
Ms McAullay said Byrnecut had a big focus on retention, in contrast to some other companies.
“They tick boxes to get the numbers but they don’t have the retention because there isn’t a supportive network for the indigenous employees on site,” she said.
“A lot of them just leave after one swing.”
Ms McAullay said a big ingredient in success was finding the right people in the first place.
“It is a bit harder to employ people for underground rather than surface, people prefer the light from the dark,” she said.
“As far as Aboriginal people don’t like working underground, that’s just a myth.
“A job’s a job.”
As well as recruiting and inducting staff for Byrnecut, BOAB runs programs for other companies.
It recently ran an all-female program for earthmoving contractor B&J Catalono, with six Aboriginal women.
“They were all completely unemployed but they all got a job and they are still employed,” Ms McAullay said.
“All six of them, their lives have changed a lot.”