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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Pit Stop No13: Q&A with Betty Ann Heggie

Betty Ann Heggie has spent twenty-six years at the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc where she climbed the corporate ladder to become Senior Vice President and an officer in the company. She was named Canada’s Top Investor Relations Officer by both her clients and her peers.

Betty Ann is now using her retirement years to promote Women’s mentorship, answering the call to share her lessons learned with other women. She has spearheaded The Betty Ann Heggie Womentorship Foundation, which supports organizations and individuals that reflect and promote her teachings about the importance of Gender Physics and the necessity of women supporting women.

Betty Ann was nominated as the 2015 Women in Mining (WIM) Canada Trailblazer award winner. This award, established by WIM Canada in 2013 recognizes women who are risk taker and have helped other woman advance in their careers.

Betty Ann Heggie

Betty Ann Heggie

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

I am from Saskatchewan and I was looking for work around the province. I knew I wanted to have a family and at the time my prospective husband had a small business in the area. Most of the jobs started at an office in the province and when you got promoted, you were transferred to another city. Thus, I looked for employment at a head office in Sask, where I wouldn’t have to move. Since mining is a big part of our economy, Potash was at the top of the list; it presented great opportunities in Saskatchewan. I worked for Potash for 26 years from 1981 to 2007.

2. You are a woman in mining; what has the experience been like for you?

Back in 1993 we tried to buy the German potash company K+S. Our CEO and myself both went to Germany to meet with the company. We had a nice dinner and the following day they had planned a tour of the underground mine for the CEO, and a city tour for myself. The reason behind this is that was believed it to be bad luck for a woman to go underground. It was an old superstition and the company didn’t want to frighten the miners. So there I was, an officer of PotashCorp, and they wanted to take me on a city tour. Our open-minded CEO refused to go underground without me. In the end, neither of us went underground. The industry has changed since then; a lot of women are now working underground and much progress has been made.

I have always been impressed with the mining industry’s emphasis on safety and continue to be impressed with their contentiousness. This safety culture goes beyond the mine site; even it the office, things like standing up on a chair or laying a pair of scissors on the floor aren’t allowed because they are things you would not do onsite. So many great safety practices started at the mine and are now practiced at the head office. These good practices flow over into my every day home life.

3. How did you advance your career to a senior position?

Hard work is a given, but you have to be lucky and have a vision. In my case, I focused on ways to improve the company. That meant that I was continually pushing news ideas forward. Early during my career I had to be persuasive because I had no status and couldn’t dictate. I did a lot of networking and made connections within the company. That is how I influenced change.

You should make sure to be strong enough to present yours ideas convincingly, build a good network of people and most importantly be resilient; when things don’t work out, you can’t crawl up at home, you need to keep going.

4. Were your challenges different than the challenges that men face?

Yes, just this morning I was talking to a woman I mentor and she was explaining that very often her interests and those of the men she works with don’t line up, which makes it difficult to create relationships through socializing. At her workplace, the men all like snowboarding, ice fishing. Because her interests are different it doesn’t give much opportunity to bond.

In my case, I tried to make friends with the wives of the other executives; it gave me an opportunity to socialize with them as couples. But I did specifically take up golf to play in company tournaments!

5. When did you join Women In Mining (WIM)? Why did you feel compelled?

WIM is a relatively new organization that took off after I retired so my involvement has been mentoring some of the women in the organization and speaking at their events. I think it’s fantastic organization; at one of the events where I spoke I was impressed to see an entire ballroom filled with woman who share common interests. It definitely empowers women by bringing them together as they strive to be leaders.

6. Why is it important to have more women in the industry?

From my experience, women deal with risk very differently than men. Men will take the financial bet while woman are more considerate of the stakeholders and the people involved. Women will make sure to not deviate from the ethical path and are committed to respect the commitments made to the employees and the environment. Women provide balance to prevent having success at any cost. They make sure that all the ‘I’s’ get dotted and ‘T’s’ get crossed. They are likely to force more internal discussion before going external, which gives any project a greater chance for success.

7. The issue of including women in mining companies has been discussed for more than a decade. Why has it been such a challenge?

For one thing women haven’t traditionally chosen engineering for a career. Also, whenever you bring in diversity, you have to make allowances and initially the mining industry wasn’t good at making those changes. It has gotten better however! For example, we now have coveralls and toilets specifically designed for women. We can’t expect them to come in and be just like men. They are different and therein lies their value.

There is also a psychological reasoning behind this: people are more likely to hire those that are like them to fill the position that they had. In mining, men were more comfortable giving jobs to other men. Once you break the glass ceiling and create a context for women to fill those positions everything changes. When people haven’t seen a woman working in a mine, they don’t know what to expect and that unknown makes them uncomfortable. Most of our decisions are made from the 85% of our brain that operates beneath the surface in the subconscious. Going back to my experience in Germany, it was an unconscious bias; people didn’t know what to expect but now that women have gone and worked underground, mentalities have changed.

8. Have you had mentors that have helped you? And how important are they?

Yes and I was very lucky. There were no women higher than me at PotashCorp so I turned to men that had a wives or daughters trying to make it in business. I knew they would be sensitized to my situation and empathize. Mentors were very important to me; my decision-making and success was a result of very good advice from my mentors.

9. What are some of the lessons you got out of your career path?

I would say that it is really important to switch between one’s feminine energy and masculine energy. It’s important to maintain one’s natural compassionate feminine energy, which readily builds relationships but also use masculine energy, which is not afraid to take a risk. You can’t just be a leader and get your ideas across without also forming relationships and helping others. You need the attributes of both and I use both these energies with my work relationships as well as my personal relationships.

10. Any advice you would give a young female student considering a career in mining?

I would say to develop and maintain your sense of humour. It is important to have fun at work, to laugh at yourself. Through humour you can find common grounds with people, or break the ice with colleagues. Like the famous saying goes, time spent laughing is time spent with the Gods. It really increases your positive vibes!