Interview: trying to change the resources industry from the inside

Benjamin Todd interviewed Michael Dello-Iacovo about his attempts to do good as a geophysicist inside the Australian mining industry.

What does the job involve?

I’m a geophysicist working for a resources company in Australia. The resources industry is broad, and includes exploration, mining and oil and gas production. Roles in the resources industry include geologists, environmental scientists, engineers (of almost all types), information technology, and a host of others. All of these potentially involve some intermittent field work. I’ll focus on geophysics and geology, as these are the roles I’m most familiar with. Note that this summary is focussed on private oil & gas and mining companies, not government or research organisations. While the roles may be similar in these organisations, the culture, salary and other perks are likely not.

As a resources geophysicist, my work ranges from data processing (which is actually more enjoyable and challenging than it sounds), interpreting and developing geological models and spending time in the field, where my role becomes more one of contractor management, environmental/safety auditing and data quality management. Being in a technical role, I don’t have a lot of meetings (perhaps 2-3 formal meetings per week), and a lot of time is spent behind a computer screen.

Why did you take this job?

I first decided to enter the resources industry part-way through my university science degree because I had a long-time love of rocks and minerals, I liked physics, I wanted a career that paid well, and I wanted to do something about climate change. Many of my friends were going down the path of activism, which I do to some extent, but I decided I’d like to try changing the industry from within by getting to a position of influence and either transitioning a company from fossil fuels to renewable energy, or simply improving their environmental practices. A good example of that recently is AGL’s newly appointed CEO Andrew Vesey. AGL is an energy provider in Australia, mostly through coal plants. Under Andrew’s new leadership, the company has now announced that they will shut down all of their coal plants over the next 35 years – no small undertaking!

I also wanted to try and influence the giving culture in the workplace. I decided that if I didn’t work in the industry, someone else who probably cared less about the environment and giving would get the job instead, as the industry is not talent constrained. I think that a lot of people with this kind of mindset are turned away from the industry, which provides a negative feedback loop. Whilst there is a very small chance that one would make such a big impact, I believe it is high enough that, along with the incremental changes, it is worth considering.

Almost one year into my role, I have to say that I have had less impact than expected on the the giving and environmental culture of the company. Even in the field, it was hard to get approval to change practices. I’ve realised that you do not normally have the kind of influence required to make such changes until you reach a more senior position.

What are the main pros of this job for someone looking to make a difference?

The main pros are the income, career capital and potential for networking. There is the potential for a lot of field work in this industry, which can be good or bad depending on how much you enjoy working remotely in the field.

An entry level employee in geoscience or engineering in this field with a 4 year undergraduate degree can expect to be making over $80,000 AUD p.a. (before bonus, or $100,000 for a field based role), which quickly increases to around $100,000 over the first few years. For some field-based roles, it isn’t unusual for the starting salary to be in excess of $120,000 during resources booms, but this isn’t sustainable.

Somewhat surprising is the difference in culture and benefits between employers. Some companies, typically smaller ones, have a less rigorous focus on safety, which can make employees uncomfortable. Many companies offer dollar matching for donations made to sponsored, or all, charities. For my employer, this is capped at a maximum of only around $300, but at BHP, one of the largest mining companies in the world, donations of up to $100,000 will be doubly matched (so $100,000 = $300,000 to charity). This greatly boosts the potential to earn to give at BHP.

The skills gained in the industry range from data analysis (highly applicable across a range of careers), computing systems usage (e.g. I’ve learned how to use Linux and a range of software as part of my role), research (literature reviews can be common depending on the role) and soft skills such as project/contractor management (some roles more than others) and teamwork. If you are proactive you will have the opportunity to work with some high profile people in the industry, which can end up being valuable mentors and contacts. I’m using my skills gained from geophysics in this job to start a PhD in asteroid geophysics in 2016, which I plan to do part-time along with my job. This has been one of the biggest personal development benefits for me from working in this field.

Just as an aside regarding the PhD, I have chosen the somewhat unusual path of doing a full-time job at the same time. As a result, I’m either at work, doing my PhD or working on a side project almost all day, every day, which certainly isn’t for everyone, but I’ve had to chance to develop and gain experience and skills much faster than usual.

What are the main cons of this job?

The main cons are the potential for stress and to work in an environment with a very low cultural fit for someone seeking to maximise their impact.

Some of my colleagues in less technical roles experience high amounts of stress when meeting deadlines, making decisions and being responsible for developing assets and projects worth millions of dollars. It is a valuable experience but burnout is a concern.

It is also quite likely that someone seeking to maximise impact or with an effective altruism mindset will have a relatively low degree of cultural fit in the industry. This isn’t to say that the average person in the industry doesn’t care about doing the right thing, or that all people act in a certain way, but the average sentiment can be difficult to deal with.

For instance, I’m a vegan for a variety of ethical reasons. I’m reasonably certain that I’m the only vegan in my company of almost 6,000 employees, and vegans are extremely rare in the industry. As a result, I get a lot of casual harassment about this choice. This ranges from joking that they will make sure there’s a salad for me at the Christmas barbecue lunch to calling vegans ‘stupid hippies’ when they forget I’m in the conversation, or don’t realise I’m a vegan. Often they don’t realise that what they say could be perceived as harmful, or they laugh and expect you to laugh along with their joke.

Another example is ridiculing people for caring too much about climate change or the environment, which encourages one to tone down this attitude to fit in. I try to live modestly in order to donate more, but this too is hard when colleagues want to regularly go to restaurants for lunch or talk about other luxury spendings. Changing my own personality as a result of the job is a risk, but I believe I’m committed enough to my cause that this won’t happen.

Working in the field

Not all roles in the industry involve fieldwork or working in remote locations, but many do, and if you decide to enter the industry you should be prepared to move around the world a lot and work in the field. Typically, geoscience university degrees will involve several multi-day field trips, often involving camping out with limited amenities. This is a true make-or-break moment for most people doing the degree; they either decide they love field work and continue, or they hate it and drop out/transfer. If you have enjoyed camping, hiking or nature in the past, that may indicate a good fit for field work. You should also be prepared to possibly have to work underground. You should have a big focus on safety but also not be claustrophobic.

The type and length of fieldwork varies widely. The work can range from camping in tents with no facilities to sleeping in caravans (or ‘dongers’) or even high-tech living camps. Most camps have limited internet access these days, but in regional Australia few have phone reception (this may be different in more populated parts of the world). Rotations range from ‘8 days on 6 days off’ to ‘6 weeks on 6 weeks off’ or more and everywhere in between. Long rotations may be difficult to manage with family, friends and other roles. Having said that, during my time in the field I had at least several hours free each day to work on my PhD in geophysics or other roles.

Some negative aspects of the culture are more pronounced in the field, with people being even less tolerant of vegans and environmental activism. As the only vegan in a camp of 80 people, the food provided was at best great, but at worst steamed vegetables and rice for several days in a row.

How to enter the field

Employers in the resources industry selectively hire graduates who have undertaken some kind of vacation work or internship in the resources or a related industry. This is highly recommended and it is never too early in your degree to start applying for vacation work, which almost always pays well. Going to conferences, joining professional bodies (both cheap or free for students) and being a member of geoscience/engineering clubs are also highly recommended. Apply for as many scholarships as you can, as these are viewed favourably and are surprisingly easy to get as many people simply don’t apply.

Outline of a potential career path

People in the industry tend to take one of two progression paths. They either focus on technical skills and end up being a senior technical staff or the leader of a technical team, or they develop commercial, project management and other skills. From here they might move into a finance role, or potentially move up the corporate ladder towards CEO. One might expect to make Senior Geophysicist after 10-15 years in the industry, or even as little as 5 years if they are particularly dedicated and talented, and will make an average salary of $147,000 AUD according to Payscale. A typical team leader salary is between $150,000 and $180,000. Again, if you’re particularly good, you might make team leader within 5 years. Managers make from $250,000 to $300,000, General Managers make between $300,000 and $550,000.

The income of a CEO, Vice Presidents and other executive officers is highly dependent on the size of the company, the company performance and how the industry is doing in general. A CEO at a large resources company might make over $4,000,000 p.a., but necessarily very few people reach this point. The resources industry fluctuates greatly, meaning that company performance and therefore job prospects vary greatly. Job security ranges from very high to very low, depending on the resources boom/bust cycle. CEOs of major resources companies are generally at least 45 years old, and it is unlikely you will be one before then even if you are highly talented and experienced, as there is a bias towards older leaders.

What have you considered switching to?

As I’ve said earlier, I’m doing a PhD in asteroid geophysics. I am particularly interested in [asteroid mining], and have considered working for an asteroid mining company or starting my own. I am also interested in asteroid impact mitigation, which I believe is a relatively neglected field despite the potential dramatic consequences, and I have the freedom to focus on this in my research. Another field I’ve considered switching to is economics, likely due to my exposure to petroleum economics. If I were to turn back the clock, I would likely do a double degree with science and computer science, as coding is highly relevant to geophysical work, especially cutting edge research, and good programmers appear to be in very high demand in general.

A lot of people in the industry switch to a more commercial role, and some end up being geophysical software developers who produce and sell software to resources companies. Some people I know who have done this have ended up making tens of millions of dollars, and some have done significantly less well. It’s hard to say what the success rate is.

Michael’s verdict

Overall, I would recommend that people pursue a career in the resources industry only if they are certain they are well suited to field work, can operate in a culture that is potentially challenging to someone focused on social impact, have reason to believe that they would be good at the work and have the chance at being influential in the industry, either through existing networks and contacts or expected future ones. The average salary is high, but employment prospects are potentially volatile, and I suspect that, globally speaking, the expected earnings would be higher for someone equally talented in a field such as computer science, so I wouldn’t work in resources just to earn to give.

After answering these questions, I realised how unsatisfied I am with the culture in my industry. However, my main arguments for remaining in the industry at this time are expected future impacts through my contacts, a high salary to earn to give, and gaining relevant expertise to another, similar line of work through space science research. My current plan is to continue working, finish my PhD and build my coding skills on the side to leave open the possibility of moving into computer science.