For more than a decade, the mining industry drove the Australian economy in general and engineering in particular. But with the boom becoming a bust, we’ve had to rethink our strategies.
According to economic forecaster BIS Shrapnel, investment in Australia’s mining industry for 2014-15 was 12 per cent lower than in the peak of 2012-13. The future is even more bleak as they predict investment will fall 60 per cent by 2017-18.
Over the same period, mining production is forecast to increase largely thanks to a number of gas projects in north-western Australia coming on line. However, for the engineering sector, the jobs are more likely to come in the construction phase than the production phase.
This was the dilemma facing Todd Battley when he was appointed Regional Managing Director of AECOM’s Northern and Western Australia Division in 2014. The division covers eight offices across Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia – the areas of Australia most dependent on mining.
“This area of the country has a lot of mining wealth and also mining activity,” Battley said.
“Granted, mining is a bit subdued at the moment, both in iron ore and in coal. But there’s still a fair bit of activity going on. It’s a key part of our business here in Northern and Western Australia.”
Battley said taking over the reins in 2014 as the mining downturn kicked in was pretty difficult because there was no real time to settle into the role.
“We had to juggle and continue to look for opportunities: being positive about where there were opportunities, but at the same time being realistic about where there weren’t,” he said, adding that he was fortunate in having worked closely with the former Regional Managing Director Richard Barrett for five years beforehand.
“He’d done a good job I think, preparing me for that,” Battley said.
“Although I think nothing really prepares you for the day where you’re the one making the decisions. Trying to look ahead and make good decisions that can be understood by our clients and by our staff. So that they continue to maintain trust in the organisation.”
He doesn’t believe that managing through difficult times can be achieved purely with one approach.
“You’ve got to juggle and balance the objectives of our staff, and our clients, and our shareholders. We’ve got to continually look to make sure they’re doing their best in the long-term interests of all of those really key parts of the business,” Battley said.
“In some instances, we’ve needed to solve today’s problem today, with a short-term outlook. At the same time trying to be mindful that we’re here for the long term. We need to make sure that we’re continuing to make investments for the long term.”
Focusing on regions
Battley grew up in Townsville in northern Queensland and did most of his early engineering work in regional Australia. He feels like he has a good understanding of what drives the economies in these areas and how engineering can have a positive impact on local communities.
“Growing up in regional Australia, you become quite resourceful because you don’t have access to all of the things that exist in the city and in the metropolitan areas,” he said.
“I lived in Mt Isa for a couple of years where you just had to make do with whatever you could get, whether that was material or equipment or you had to design things that the people who were living there could actually build. I think you became quite resourceful and I certainly know our business in North Queensland has generated a lot of excellent, very resourceful, efficient engineers, and they’re able to get things done even with some constraints.”
He also worked with Indigenous communities in the Torres Strait and feels the full gamut of experience in regional Australia has helped shape both his approach to engineering and leadership.
“I still like efficiency and feel like we can do things even when we’ve got a few constraints, but I think that when you move to a capital city and maybe have some more things at your disposal, it just makes you more appreciative of the options that you have and the choices that you can make,” he said.
“Nothing really prepares you for the day where you’re the one making decisions.”
Battley’s decision to follow an engineering career path came partly from an aptitude for maths and physics at school and role models closer to home.
“My father was involved in the copper industry in Townsville as an electrical fitter,” Battley said.
“For as long as I can remember, there were always projects going on at our house, whether that was on the house or boats and cars. He had a large shed that he worked in all the time and so I grew up fixing things. I think maybe that’s where it started. I was surrounded by all these excellent role models who were all very practical and good at fixing things, very pragmatic, earthy folks, as you can imagine in North Queensland.”
He studied civil engineering at James Cook University in Townsville and is full of praise for the engineering faculty there.
“What wasn’t evident to me until I moved away from there was the impact some of the real fathers of the profession had on that university, particularly as it related to the Cyclone Testing Facility that was established after Cyclone Tracy in Darwin,” Battley said.
“There was a fellow called George Walker who was really instrumental in changing how we designed buildings for wind, and that was a really strong suit of the university. It attracted good academic people and good local kids to go and study there and so that was a pretty easy choice to study at James Cook for a Townsville boy.”
Exploring different markets
Because AECOM globally, and in the rest of Australia, covers a broad range of engineering areas, the obvious thing to do was to look to those areas more and try to in more business across northern and western Australia.
“Transportation has certainly been reasonably solid for is for the past couple of years and looks to be pretty solid for the next few years as well,” Battley said.
“North Queensland has generated a lot of excellent, very resourceful, efficient engineers.”
“There’s a reasonable pipeline of transportation-related work, road and rail. That’s true in Perth and in Brisbane and throughout North Queensland. Those are providing us with good opportunities and certainly there’s some major projects in the pipeline that we’re looking forward to hearing about.”
He cites the extension of the Roe Highway in the southern suburbs of Perth as an example of the sorts of projects they are well positioned for. But looking for new opportunities doesn’t just involve bidding for new tenders. Battley said they need to be proactive too.
“We absolutely believe we should be providing our partners and clients with advice,” he said.
“Particularly, where you might have several projects happening in a region. Maybe there’s an opportunity to generate more activity, to get a better outcome by joining the dots. We see that as a part our mandate. As one of the largest firms of our type in the world, we can’t sit silently here and just do our project work. We’ve got to be a part of the conversation for the development of the communities we work in.”