A FIFO mining mum on the pros and cons of working away

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So, you're a working mum and you've just been offered a great opportunity to advance your career. Only problem is, the job involves working hundreds of kilometres away from your family. What to do? What to expect? One exploration geologist from WA agreed to answer our questions off the record, to provide some advice for others and flesh out the benefits and challenges of being a FIFO mum.

1. Please give us a brief rundown of your studies/career and how you got into mining.

I studied initially at the Canberra Institute of Technology and then progressed on to university. Thanks to that initial time at CIT, I believe that I may have gained a lot more experience than those who went straight through university. I have worked in the mining industry, doing exploration, on and off for the past 15 years. During that time I have worked in several areas in WA and NSW. Living in the eastern states, I originally got into the mining industry by applying directly to positions vacant in the West Australian newspaper. It was a hard slog applying for jobs but in the end it paid off.

2. Was it a tough decision to work FIFO and what were the pros and cons that you weighed up before making the call?

When I got my first job, it was as a contract FIFO exploration geologist. I remember getting off the plane at the Perth domestic terminal and then made my way to the Skippers terminal. It was a big shock at first but within a short time I adjusted to the lifestyle. The hardest part was not being able to secure somewhere to live permanently in Perth. After I overcame that hurdle, life became even better. Working FIFO is an easy lifestyle to become accustomed to when you are young and have no children.

Once my children came along it was a lot harder decision to make, especially seeing as though we had to move back to WA from NSW as well. In NSW I had a residential role, primarily working Monday to Friday, which made it easy on the whole family.

My husband and I discussed every possible scenario regarding staying where we were AND residential versus FIFO. During this process we discussed all of the pros and cons for both situations - we actually wrote them all down, dividing them up into pros and cons for both residential NSW and FIFO WA. Some people might think this isn't necessary, but it's quite easy to forget things when you are making such a big, potentially life-changing decision.

Some of the pros and cons we considered were:

  • The impact that it would have on our family life, such as
    • Could we sustain this type of lifestyle?
    • How long could we handle it?
    • Could I handle being only a 'part-time mum'?
    • Could my husband handle having to be the primary caregiver for most of the time?
    • How would it affect our marriage by spending only five days/fortnight together?
    • What would be the psychological impact of all of this on our children?
  • Care options for our children: school (location and hours), daycare (location and hours) and even the option of employing a live-in nanny
  • Facilities available for the family, such as doctors, specialists, etc
  • Wages: would increased living expenses outweigh the potential wage increase?
  • Relatives living nearby

3. Do you have a specific plan or timeline for what you want to achieve in the industry?

Like most professionals, I would like to go as far as I can with my career. Whether or not I continue to be an exploration geologist, or changeover to be a mine geologist, only time will tell. The company that I recently started working for has a very flat structure, so if I wanted to further my career I would have to change jobs. At present, seeing as though I like where I work, I am just taking it as it comes. Maybe things will change after I have been doing FIFO for a while ... who knows?

4. What lessons have you learnt and what strategies have you implemented to make the separation easier for you and your family?

To try and make things a little easier on the family, but particularly our children, my husband and I have employed a live-in nanny. This seems to be working well as she is always there for the children. As an added bonus for us, she helps out around the house with some basic cleaning. We did have a lot of apprehension regarding this decision. The things that concerned us were not only employing a nanny, but also having a stranger live in our house and having that person become another primary carer for our children.

While I'm on-site, I ring home and speak with my children every night. That gives all of us a chance to catch up on what has happened during the day and for me tell them goodnight. We are also looking at the prospect of getting a laptop computer so that I can talk to the children via Skype every night, instead of just the phone.

Overall, we are basically learning how to deal with 'speed-bumps' regarding this situation as we go along.

5. What’s the response been like from family and friends – have they been supportive of the decision?

My family wasn't keen on me taking on a FIFO role as they thought it would be hard on all of us, but they are now coming around. On the other hand, my husband's family was extremely supportive. I've had mixed reactions from friends. The most common response has been: "how will you handle being away from your children for 9 days?" I answer them simply and honestly and tell them that it will be hard, but it's something that I feel I need to do. Generally, they are happy with that.

6. What are the best and worst aspects of FIFO for a working mum?

Well the worst aspect is being away from my children and husband. This is especially hard when you get a call that one of your children is unwell. Part of you wants to get on the next plane and go home, but then reality kicks in and you know that you can’t do that. Be assured though, that if one of my children were seriously ill or ended up in hospital, I would organise to get home ASAP and I believe my employer would help me to do that. The best aspect would be that you get to have the TV remote all to yourself! Seriously though, I'm not really certain that there is a best part of doing FIFO as a mum, as you do sacrifice a lot. I am yet to really find one.

7. Does your gender affect the way you’re treated on the site?

Many years ago it did affect the way that you were treated. Now you are almost just considered to be 'one of the guys', rather than 'just a female'.

8. We read a lot these days about the mining industry trying to attract more women. Do you think mine sites (and the mining industry generally) are female friendly and what could be done better?

Generally, the mining industry is female friendly but there are still some people who believe that if you are in the same job as them, then you should be able to do the same work. Physically that is not always possible. As an example, in terms of tasks such as heavy lifting, most of the females that I have worked with, and currently work with, know their limitations and aren't scared to ask for help if they need it.

9. Would you consider your own company to be family friendly? Do they have any specific measures for mining mums like you?

I believe that the company that I currently work for is family friendly. One of our field assistants has a sister-in-law who is due to give birth soon and has requested that she fly out once she receives word that the baby has arrived - she might have to leave in the middle of her shift.  Her supervisor said "yeah, no problem". Fortunately I was employed in my current position to do 'campaign-style exploration'. Basically, this means that when there is no drilling being undertaken, I can work from the office in Perth.

10. Would you recommend the mining industry to other mums/women?

As a mum, I feel that the appropriate answer to this question would be that you have to do what you feel is right for you and your family. Discuss it with your partner/husband and work through all the possible implications of doing FIFO. Alternatively, look for a residential role. As a female, it is definitely a lifestyle adjuster. It is not a lifestyle that all people, both men and women, can adjust to.  (You might also meet your future husband...I did!)

11. Finally, what advice do you have for working mums and women generally who might be considering entering the mining industry and the FIFO lifestyle?

Seriously, think about it. Don't just think to yourself that there are a lot of women out there, so why can’t I. If they all jumped off a bridge, would you follow them? Talk to anyone you know, female or male, who works in the mining industry. Talk to them about everything (no matter how big or small) to help make an informed decision.


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