BHP Billiton’s quandary: How to supercharge labour mobility

BHP Billiton’s quandary: How to supercharge labour mobility

Adam Harris chuckles at yesterday’s comment by CEO of BHP Billiton, Marius Kloppers, that it was easier to get Americans to move for work than Australians. The manager of mining and engineering for recruitment company, Robert Walters, Harris says that 90% of the appointments he makes have to move to take the job. “What [Kloppers] says is very true in the sense that operators and project managers who grew up in regional Queensland will want to work at a local mine,” he says.

Resources and mining companies are not the only companies struggling to achieve labour mobility; leading companies in many other sectors are looking for ways to lure staff to where they are needed, including technology companies and those in construction, engineering and architecture.

Harris says it is hard to tempt people needed for operational roles to move, but ambitious executives see moving for promotion as an inevitable part of climbing the ladder.

Simply put, people will move for career advancement and won’t move for personal reasons.

Movement between capital cities in Australia is less problematic than placing operational and executive staff in the regions or mining towns.

For example, the engineering company, Golder Associates, could not get a young engineer to take up a position in the beachside resort town of Noosa for 12 months. “You would think that would be pretty attractive,” the company’s managing director Darren Watt told BRW magazine. The problem was that the young engineers saw Noosa not as a fabulous lifestyle option, but as a career backwater that would look like early retirement on their CV.

One tactic that leading companies take to overcome career worries is to provide detailed career planning and pathways for managers and operational staff that take regional or remote positions.

“The companies that are doing a far better job of recruitment certainly offer career progression. If you look at big mining companies, a good career plan and structure is part of what they offer,” says Harris. “These days they have dedicated people to manage careers and manage people. And engineering companies are doing it more themselves.”

Money is an obvious lure, but generous rosters are also a way of tempting people to take up remote positions. In Western Australia, for example, executive who work onsite are typically getting eight days on and six days off, and four days on, three days off is becoming more common.

Research by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute has found that Australians’ reluctance to move is tied up with the cost of housing: because houses cost so much, Australians invest a lot of emotion in them, and are reluctant to leave them.

In remote locations in Western Australia, employers address this by offering free housing, which allows employees to rent out their homes and pocket the cash, or by flying workers in and out to work (FIFO). In Queensland, where FIFO is not as common, some resources companies offer to bus workers in and out of major regional centres, such as Mackay.

Teenage children are a factor in reducing mobility, Harris says. Once children reach high school, executives and operational staff in the last 30s and early 40s are much more reluctant to uproot the family and put their children’s high school education at risk. “That is when they want to move to the capital cities,” he says.

In some sectors, such as the professions, the option of overseas posting is viewed as a plus of the job. Accounting firms for example use their global networks to retain Gen Ys. In their 20s, young accountants will take up postings in their employer’s overseas offices, and mid-tier firms try to post their talent into affiliated firms in other countries. This allows Gen Ys with itchy feet to travel, keeps them in the company and increases their loyalty to their employer.

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