Skills Shortage Could Hamper New Mining Developments In North Queensland, Industry Says

A plan to create a global minerals hub in north-west Queensland could be undermined by a lack of highly skilled workers, industry experts have warned.
Queensland resources minister Scott Stewart travelled to the UK last week with the aim of promoting Queensland as a global minerals hub to investors, focusing on the expansion of the vanadium industry, a mineral that is used in steel alloys and creating batteries for renewable energy.
Queensland has some of the richest vanadium deposits in the world. But CSIRO senior researcher, Dr Chris Vernon, said that despite having an estimated 18% of global vandium supplies, Australia lacks the skilled workforce necessary to capitalise on that resource.
Vernon said it was not as simple as transitioning coalminers to new jobs.
“When you come down to things like critical minerals, you’re talking about something that’s at a far smaller scale,” he said. “So the holes are not nearly as big. There’s a lot more technical expertise required in the mining concentration and processing.”
The Queensland government has announced a $3m workforce development plan to upskill the existing labour force to prepare for the new industry.
Vernon said the skills shortage is not helped by an already tight labour market, and an unwillingness of young engineers to get into an industry they view as polluting.
“In my experience, trying to hire a mining engineer or a chemical engineer at the moment is pretty tough,” he said.
“However, I think it can inspire a younger generation who might have looked at mining as sort of dull, dirty and old [that vanadium mining is] something that’s worth doing because you’re actually solving the decarbonisation issue.”
Vernon said vanadium would be critical to transitioning the economy away from coal.
“Vanadium is fantastic for flow batteries and is nearly 99% recyclable,” he said.
He added that the real value would come from processing the mineral onshore. “I’ve never been a fan of, you know, digging it up and shipping it out of the country, I think we really need to do some value add here,” he said.
This view was shared by Gavin Loyden, the managing director of QEM Limited, which operates a vanadium mine in Julia Creek in north-west Queensland.
Loyden said his company was “absolutely worried” about labour shortages and added that it was critical the industry not repeat the mistakes of the past, in just shipping minerals offshore.
“There is a realisation that the these battery companies need to be close to the source of vanadium supply, because shipping it around is not cost effective,” he said.
Loyden said all of QEM’s projects were aimed at the domestic production as this was both cost effective and in line with the strategy of key customers in Japan and Korea, who want to reduce the risk of their manufacturing operations being undermined by disruptions in global trade routes caused by geopolitical tensions.
“Their intention is to do as much production close to the source of the minerals as they possibly can, rather than risking those transport lines,” he said.
On Wednesday, the federal industry and science minister Ed Husic said the government would introduce legislation to help the domestic manufacturing industry grow.
Loyden said water availability was another issue that had the potential to hinder the industry in North Queensland. He said QEM was working on a “permanent solution” that wouldn’t require the use of river water, but a Queensland government spokesperson told Guardian Australia that there was adequate water capacity in the nearby Flinders catchment to support the industry.
“We’re backing out of coal over time,” Loyden said. “But this is an industry that can have the same scale over time, where we’re really supplying is the fundamental pieces of the puzzle that we need to drive this energy transition.”