THERE is still much work to do to achieve gender balance in the mining industry.
But, the future appears bright if the female to male ratio in the TAFE NSW Muswellbrook Mining Skills Program is any indication of progress.
In 2019, the number of women makes up 29 per cent of the class, which is almost double the industry average.
It's a positive step forward, according to TAFE NSW regional general manager Susie George.
"Resource companies are making considerable efforts to attract and retain women," she said.
"TAFE NSW fully supports this and takes pride in our role of teaching, mentoring and encouraging our female students to become well-qualified and confident industry participants.
"In developing the next generation of industry leaders, regardless of gender, a critical component is ensuring access to high-quality education and training.
"We work closely with some of the Hunter's biggest employers to ensure we give all apprentices the abilities, knowledge and 'seam to sea' exposure they need to be job-ready."
Current TAFE NSW Muswellbrook Mining Skills Program student Antonia Moncrieff, 22, is a first-year electrical apprentice from Stockton.
She's hosted by Port Waratah Coal Services and employed by Programmed Training Services.
"My experience has been absolutely positive," she explained.
"I haven't observed any men versus women dynamic, in every interaction we're just all working together to achieve a goal that benefits the company.
"All the tradesmen I come into contact with have enjoyed sharing their knowledge with me and just want to see me succeed."
On the need for greater diversity in the industry, Ms Moncrieff added: "Diversity brings different perspectives and problem solving skills.
"I believe women are excellent at resolving conflict and mentoring others, whether female or male.
"I believe that's one of our strengths.
"Women bring lots of positive qualities and with an increase in our participation comes an increase in highly-skilled people in the workplace."
Twenty-eight-year-old Jennifer Chalker from Muswellbrook, a BHP Mt Arthur Coal second-year electrical apprentice who was part of the 2018 TAFE NSW Muswellbrook Mining Skills Program, agreed.
"I have found that it is much the same as any work place," she said.
"Having previously been a service manager in the automotive industry, I've always worked in typically male-dominated industries.
"If you are willing to learn and put in the effort you will gain the respect of your co-workers regardless of your gender or theirs.
"I think more females being given the opportunity to complete trades they may not have been able to access in the past is great.
"If you are looking for a career within the industry, don't let what others think hold you back.
"Research ways you can obtain your goal and don't be disheartened if you don't succeed the first time."
NSW Women in Mining Network co-chair and BHP lead corporate affairs NSW Deirdra Tindale believes increasing female participation in the sector has been found to significantly benefit mining companies and local communities.
"Companies are realising gender diversity is no longer simply a nice or a good thing to do, but the right thing to do - both for broader society and their own bottom lines," she said.
"We have seen that diversity delivers improved productivity results, greater access to talent, stronger employee retention and reduced employee turnover.
"One of the biggest levers to attracting and retaining women to the resources industry has been the introduction of flexible work practices.
"This can take many forms, from the ability to work remotely to job share arrangements.
"Ultimately, this demonstrates to all employees that they shouldn't feel constrained by the more traditional way of working, i.e. at a desk from 9am to 5pm.
"Flexible work is challenging the status quo and changing the look and feel of the workplace for both women and men.
"It's encouraging everyone to think differently about how they can best achieve the desired outcomes."
Mrs Tindale said studies had found mentoring and sponsorship were also useful tools for employers to consider.
"The WIMnet NSW Mentoring Program is now entering its fifth year, with more than 120 female employees in the mining sector matched with experienced mentors since the initiative's inception," she explained.
"These women receive guidance and assistance with achieving their goals and some of the outcomes have included promotions, better work-life balance and increased confidence in dealing with colleagues in a male-dominated workplace.
"It is wonderful to hear the TAFE NSW Muswellbrook Mining Skills Program is close to reaching a 1:3 ratio of males to females.
"This is positive progress and assists with working towards BHP's aspirational goal of 50/50 gender balance by 2025."
Delivered from the purpose-built Mining Skills Centre at TAFE NSW Muswellbrook, the six-month program is a unique offering that complements the course delivery for trade qualifications in the electro-technology, engineering- mechanical trade and mobile plant technology disciplines.
It provides real-world practical experience and a thorough understanding of how to be a safe, work-ready apprentice.
Students receive an overall education about coal mining while studying fundamentals of the four trade areas of machining, electrical, metal fabrication and automotive.
They also learn about financial awareness, health and nutrition, drug and alcohol safety, fatigue management and road safety awareness.
The program's effectiveness is due to a close collaboration with some of the Hunter's biggest companies, including AGL Macquarie, Bengalla Mining Company, BHP Mt Arthur Coal, Hitachi Construction Machinery, Port Waratah Coal Services and Yancoal-Mount Thorley Warkworth.
Programmed and MIGAS are also involved, providing employment and pastoral care for their respective apprentices on these sites.
While only 15.8 per cent of the mining workforce is currently female, the companies and their networks, like the Hunter Business Chamber, are allocating considerable human and financial resources toward achieving an aspirational goal of a 50 per cent female workforce.
And, schools and TAFE NSW feature prominently in their strategies to encourage girls into trades and become qualified tradespeople.
Australia's largest training provider, TAFE NSW offers more than 1200 courses, from certificates to degrees.
Many can be studied online via TAFE Digital, when and where it suits students.
Visit www.tafensw.com.au or phone 131 601.