Addressing the geoscience skills shortage – MIWATCH at NExUS 2022

One of the major risks facing the mining sector is the skills shortage. Talk to anyone working in geology departments (if they are still open), and they will tell you, student numbers have declined over the past 5 years.

When I arrived in Australia back in 2006, honours cohorts commonly had 10-15 students. Now, it is considered a good year if you get 5. With the lure of industry salaries and the opportunity to step outside the classroom and putting skills into practice, retention of students at honours or PhD level is hard. But how do we ensure that our future workforce have an opportunity to upskill as they start their professional careers?

Cue the National Exploration Undercover School (NExUS). Created by Dr Richard Lilly and Professor Graham Heinson in 2016, NExUS is a collaboration of universities, government and industry partners to deliver a world-class national program of training to future geologists. NExUS is a mix of technical workshops, fieldwork and networking opportunities and is financially supported by the Minerals Council of Australia and OZ Minerals.

Now in its 7th year, NExUS boasts over 260 graduates, representing every State and Territory in Australia. For early career geoscientists this is one of the most sought-after networks to belong to, unlocking additional educational opportunities throughout their careers. These include online and face-to-face workshops which are offered each year, and an annual Perth-based 5-day NExUS-RoadShow. The program has been so successful that Dr Lilly was recently awarded the South Australia STEMM educator of the year award for his work with the program.

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, MIWATCH group with NExUS 2022 cohort
A beautiful Adelaide evening, a great time to chat more to the NExUS 2022 cohort.

As a former lecturer at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) I recall students asking me to give them references to attend NExUS, as well as – for those lucky ones – their delight when they got accepted. Recognising the growing importance of understanding mine waste (both the risks and opportunities), MIWATCH were invited to teach last year, albeit via Zoom – our turn to be delighted! This year we were thrilled to attend in person. Along with Dr Laura Jackson and Dr Kam Bhowany (also NExUS alumna) we took the cohort of 36 on a whirlwind journey broadly on the important role of mine waste in the transition towards a low carbon economy. Supporting case studies in Queensland and Tasmania were presented by Laura and Kam.  With many questions taken afterwards and over dinner, we saw this was a topic that resonated with this audience – with potentially a few new MIWATCHer’s signed up for 2023?

 Laura Jackson, Kam Bhowany, Anita Parbhakar-Fox wearing colourful SS22/23 NExUS hats
What was the reward for lecturing? only the highly sought-after SS22/23 NExUS hats. Left to right: Laura Jackson, Kam Bhowany, Anita Parbhakar-Fox.

The next day we retired the heels for steel toecaps and joined the cohort on a trip to Brukunga pyrite mine, located 40 km east of Adelaide in the Mount Lofty Ranges of South Australia. Iron sulfide minerals (pyrite and pyrrhotite) were mined by open pit methods between 1955 and 1972. During its operation, 6.5 Mt of waste rock and 4 Mt of tailings were produced. After mine closure, the responsibility of the site fell to the government, who have since been actively managing acidic drainage (pH <3) from these mine waste features. The NExUS cohort had the opportunity to witness firsthand some of the issues discussed the previous afternoon, as well as getting familiar with a diamond drill rig and learning about Truscan technology.

2022 NExUS cohort joined by MIWATCH members.
The 2022 NExUS cohort joined by MIWATCH members, Anita, Kam and Laura. Photo courtesy of Richard Lilly.

Planning for NExUS 2023 is already underway and with new sponsors BHP joining this will likely provide even more opportunities for early career professionals to upskill.  Perhaps a MIWATCH-NExUS field course in Queensland could be on the agenda (anyone who has sat in one of my lectures knows I need at least a day to get though one of my slide decks!). Watch this space… 

Last updated:
6 December 2022