7 big ideas to help solve the Kalgoorlie (in WA) FIFO crisis

open pit excavator

Candidates for mining jobs just don’t want to move to Kalgoorlie. Here are 7 big ideas that could help make residential mining jobs more attractive.

No one wants to move to Kalgoorlie. Or, at least, not the right people, anyway.

That’s the one thing the players in the mining industry’s latest political bunfight seem to be able to agree on – even if they can’t decide what to do about it.

Since July, when local Major John Bowler warned Kalgoorlie was “losing the fight” against fly-in fly-out work practices, there’s been a bit of a blame game going on.

“No-one is on our side,” Mr Bowler lamented, in the city’s bid to attract new residents to the region. He slated mining companies for being lazy and the State Government for being disinterested. Government MP's have blamed the city’s own migration policy, Opposition MP's have blamed the Government, and mining companies point out they actually inject a lot of money into the Goldfields’ economy.

It was, not surprisingly, a hot-button topic at Diggers and Dealers in the city last week where, at least, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy did its bit by launching a survey to assess the impact of FIFO workforces on Kalgoorlie.

Impacts are one thing. I’ll wait for the results of the survey to comment on those. Today, I’m more interested in what can be done to attract more qualified people to residential mining jobs in Kalgoorlie.

8 reasons miners don’t want to move to Kalgoorlie for work

As you can imagine, operating in the mining recruitment space, and with one of our offices and staff in Kalgoorlie, directly across the road from the Palace Hotel, my team has a front-row seat to this issue. And we can tell you exactly why people don’t want to move to Kalgoorlie for residential jobs.

Every single day, whether these comments are fair or not, these are the statements we hear from good, qualified candidates offered residential mining roles in Kalgoorlie:

  • Schooling is terrible in Kalgoorlie
  • There’s not enough to do in Kalgoorlie, especially for my wife
  • I want to go home to my house in Perth/Melbourne/Sydney/etc.
  • I’ll still work a 12-hour day and I still won’t see my kids
  • Housing/rent is too expensive in Kalgoorlie
  • There aren’t enough shops and choices in Kalgoorlie
  • It’s too far from anywhere, but especially the beach
  • I can just take a FIFO job and be in Perth on my home swing, so why move?

I can hear the uproar of protest from Mr Bowler and Kalgoorlie residents at some of these comments but, like I said, fair or not, these are the things we hear from jobseekers every single day.

Like it or not, these are the impressions people have of Kalgoorlie. And if you want to attract people to the city, then you’re going to have to either solve the problems where they are real, or get the marketing right to persuade people otherwise. These are the barriers you have to overcome.

As an aside: A while back there was a lot of publicity around Kalgoorlie being “the town with 1000 jobs”. That lead to a lot of unskilled people calling up, looking for work. Ironically, we have very little problem attracting unskilled people to Kalgoorlie. They’re willing to move for work. Skilled people, however, are a very different story.

What can be done to attract mining families to live in Kalgoorlie?

When you come up against these same barriers every day, when it’s part of your job to challenge that thinking and convince people to take a really great job opportunity despite the disadvantages they perceive, you tend to think about the issues a lot. Certainly my team, both here in Perth and in Kalgoorlie, has spent a lot of time thinking about it.

Now, I’m not saying these are the only solutions, or even the best solutions, but they are at least starting points for a conversation that clearly needs to be had.

Here are 7 big ideas that could help alleviate the concerns of candidates who are reluctant to move to Kalgoorlie for a residential mining job.

1. Subsidised housing and living costs

Mining companies spend in the vicinity of $35,000 to $40,000 on flight costs for each FIFO employee each year (particularly if they’re using commercial aircraft). If companies spent half that amount subsidising housing in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, it could be a real win-win.

2. Subsidised private education

Parents, particularly of high school-aged children, have real concerns about the quality of education their children will get in Kalgoorlie. (Obviously, there are good schools in Kalgoorlie but, like I said, impressions.) Mining companies subsidising the costs of an education at one of Kalgoorlie’s private schools, or even paying for private tutoring in specialist subjects, could be enough to get some job candidates over the line.

3. Additional annual leave

Candidates talk a lot about the impacts of work on family life. Providing a couple of extra weeks’ leave a year for employees willing to take on residential roles would be a huge incentive to make the move, as would having a process to make it easier to take leave during school holiday periods.

4.  Better connect Kalgoorlie

Yes, there are many flights to Perth every day and direct flights to Melbourne on the weekend, but many people tell us Kalgoorlie is far too isolated for them. If it were possible to reduce flight costs, perhaps by offering tax relief to residential mining industry employees on flights to major cities, that would make travel less prohibitive and enable them to feel more connected. (A lot of people say Kalgoorlie is too far from the beach, which seems like an intractable problem, but cheap weekend flights to Esperance could also alleviate that concern.)

STOP PRESS: I acknowledge the announcement made in the past week about the introduction of capped price airfares for some regional centers including Kalgoorlie. 

5. Tax relief and tenure bonuses for residential mining employees

The 26th Parallel has long been a demarcation point for many different kinds of laws, including taxation at various points. Could similar taxation relief be achieved for regional mining towns in the Goldfields? Or even just for residential mining employees?

Companies could also offer to pay tenure bonuses for employees who relocate to places like Kalgoorlie and who stay for certain periods of time. 

6. Employ unskilled labour and offer training

As I mentioned above, there is no shortage of unskilled candidates willing to move to Kalgoorlie to take on mining jobs. With the labour market tightening considerably and a skills shortage looming, it’s going to become harder to fill many mining jobs – not just residential ones. It’s time for mining companies to look again at that willing pool of unskilled labour and consider taking the best of them on and training them up. We’ve suggested this before, but they could be incentivised to stay longer by having some of their relocation costs reimbursed if they stick it out for a certain period.   

7. A targeted marketing campaign

Yes, some work has been done in this area. Investments have been made, ad agencies have been employed, and campaigns have hit the airwaves. Not to denigrate the work that has been done, but I can tell you from our conversations on the phone that neither hearts nor minds have been won over. It’s time for a campaign that targets every single one of those concerns I listed up top. Those are the barriers to people moving to Kalgoorlie. Remove those barriers and a residential mining job should notionally be irresistible.

And finally, a lot of little things can make a big difference

  • Salary sacrifice options for airline memberships and interstate flights to go home to see the family.
  • Paid parental leave, home services for new parents and on site creche services for new parents – because it’s unlikely grandparents live around the corner.
  • Fuel allowances for people commuting to work in private vehicles.
  • FBT relief for companies providing such allowances.

It’s time to work together; there’s a lot to do

Those are just some suggestions. I’m sure there are many more great ideas out there. But the important thing is nothing is going to change unless all the parties come together to work on the problem. The blame game needs to stop. It’s time for cooperation.

Mining companies could introduce some of the above ideas at the stroke of a pen. Some of the others would require Government action and could take much, much longer to achieve. But if we truly want to regenerate interest in places like Kalgoorlie and regional Australia more generally, then with everyone pulling in the same direction, we at least stand a chance of success. And success, really, is in everyone’s interests here – because who really wins if places like Kalgoorlie fail?

Steve Heather.