Pit Stop No14: Holstein Wong’s mining journey

I studied a Bachelor of Engineering in Materials Science and Engineering (Honours) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. I also travelled to Swansea University, Wales for a semester on international exchange. I’m now a Graduate Processing Engineer for BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance in the Bowen Basin, Central Queensland.

1. What originally appealed to you about working in mining?

At the beginning of my undergraduate studies, I was more interested in engineering materials for product development. As I learnt more about minerals processing, I really wanted to start my career as upstream as possible, so mining was a perfect fit.

2. What are your main duties as a process engineer?

As a Graduate Processing Engineer, my role is to support operations to optimise the recovery of coal and minimise waste of reagents from our minesite operations. I work in the Coal Handling and Preparation Plant (CHPP) where we upgrade the run-of-mine material and reduce the ash content to meet the specifications of our international customers. My day-to-day duties include analysing and benchmarking production performance and quality, monitoring any abnormal changes in the processing equipment, updating information centres to keep everyone on track for our monthly targets, streamlining work instructions and much more. Various other responsibilities include trialling equipment and processing initiatives to optimise the recovery of product and reagents, to produce more tonnes for less unit cost.

3. How does a typical day at your job go?

A typical day sees me arrive on site at 6:30 am for a handover from the nightshift crew. We get an overview of the day’s plan and take note of any hazards. After reviewing production metrics I’ll put on my safety gear and 2-way radio and go for a walk in the plant; no need for a gym membership when there are so many stairs! The plant is a complex five-storey entity that runs 24/7 so my schedule depends on whether issues arise in the plant throughout the day. The rest of the time may involve meetings, writing up business cases and getting approval for trials and modifications, following up with maintenance, and generally answering questions from both operations and management.

4. What is your favourite part of the work you do?

My favourite part of the work I do is that I can see direct improvements that result from our team’s efforts. Every day I learn something that makes me appreciate the knowledge and experience of the people around me. It’s humbling to be part of a team that coordinates and achieves such complex work around the clock; coal is trucked from all over our minesite that is 80 km (50 miles) long, and we produce between 1100-1400 tonnes of coal per hour (my car weighs just over 1 tonne!).

I also like that my role isn’t a desk job. Working in the physically demanding environment of the processing plant was a huge change from university, but it’s great that we have to be flexible and responsive. It’s a fast-paced setting where I’m often learning about something for the first time while trying to troubleshoot it. This exposure to operations has greatly improved my reactive thinking and time-management.

5. What’s the most challenging part of your job?

The scale of operations means that any small change can have a large impact on productivity and quality. It’s a challenge to keep in mind all the interrelated variables and potential consequences while striving to fine-tune and improve our processes. Everyone brings their own set of skills and expertise to the mix, and we work well together to keep producing tonnes safely and efficiently.

Living and working remotely certainly has its challenges too, we only have one supermarket and because we are so far inland, I miss eating fresh seafood! But living with only the essentials is the best opportunity to learn about your own strengths and develop professional and interpersonal skills that will be utilised all throughout your career journey.

6. Have you ever had a bad experience?

I haven’t had any particularly bad experiences in terms of being a female in the mining industry, but it’s disappointing to see the lack of women in senior roles. When I try to raise this topic of discussion, most of my colleagues are dismissive of it being a “real” problem. People talk about “the best person for the job”, which is a sentiment I completely agree with, however, are we really picking “the best person” if the selection process favours people who fit the current image of what a miner or an engineer looks like?

7. What kind of volunteering do you do and how does it benefit you?

I’ve volunteered with Rotaract since I started university and I’m now the PR & Marketing Director for Rotaract Australia. Our monthly Skype meetings and yearly strategy weekends keep me connected with the outside community. RA provides the framework and resources for Rotaractors (18-30 year olds in more than 70 clubs around Australia) to contribute to their local communities to bring about social change, along with providing professional development to members. Over the past year I’ve worked on national communication strategies to lift the engagement of individual members and raise the brand awareness of Rotaract to existing and potential benefactors, to improve the impact of our non-profit organisation. The benefits of volunteering are being able to give back to the community as a good global citizen and sharing ideas with other motivated individuals.

I’m also a strong advocate for more female representation in STEM industries. In my two voluntary appointments as Head of Media at International Women in Mining Community and Committee Member at Women in Mining and Resources Queensland, I firmly believe that we can change the male-dominated nature of the mining industry within my professional lifetime. STEM in general has many female students but this does not translate to significant female representation in industry, especially in senior roles. My current roles with these non-profit community organisations focus on improving the retention and advancement of existing female trainees and employees, but I hope to move towards building and advising on more robust policies for more diversity in the workplace on an international level. This is not just out of self-interest, but to give more viable options for girls today and in the future, because engineering is a fantastic area that should be accessible to all who show an interest.

8. Is there anything you think students and recent grads should know about starting a career in mining?

Mining can be a rewarding career choice but the reality is that a lot more sacrifice is involved compared to other industries. Most like you will be posted to a remote minesite that is hours from anywhere, so it helps to have supportive friends and family who are okay with Skype. It’s a volatile industry where entire departments can be cut if commodity prices take a dive, so you have to be prepared to move around constantly. Having said that, the best way of learning is to be a doer – you’ll get out of your experiences what you put in. Working in the mining profession is so much more than just developing your technical skills, so if you see something interesting, ask about how you can be involved.

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