A teacher turned mining professional

Jessica Nicholls hasn’t followed a conventional path to the mining industry, making her story all the more inspiring for the sector’s next generation.

Jessica Nicholls joined National Group, one of Australia’s premier mining services companies, in 2015 after beginning her career as a kindergarten teacher in Newcastle.

Her first role at National Group was as a receptionist at the company’s head office on the Gold Coast, and she has blossomed in the years since, promoted to a full-time accounts role in 2017 and later to accounts payable manager.

Nicholls is now employed as National Group’s site administrator at Yancoal’s Moolarben coal mine in NSW, where she assists the maintenance team with parts ordering and delivery.

This comes after National Group’s contract-mining arm – National Mining Services – was awarded a three-year mining-services contract at Moolarben in July 2022, creating an additional 75 jobs. National Mining Services is providing works such as the safe pre-stripping of a minimum of 15 million bank cubic metres of overburden each year at Moolarben.

National Mining Services has used National Group’s ultra-class mining equipment on the contract, including Liebherr R9800 excavators, Liebherr T282 dump trucks and other ancillary equipment.

Nicholls said she joined National Group because it offered career progression and growth opportunities. The company’s national footprint also appealed to her.

“I wanted to join a company that offered career progression,” Nicholls told Australian Mining.

“And if I got my foot in the door in the mining industry, then it could open up doors for me all around Australia.

“National Group seemed like a large company, and I knew they had mine sites all over Australia, so I thought, ‘I’ll start at the head office and see where that takes me’.”

Nicholls said National Group has been supportive of her the whole way.

“My growth with this company has always felt really collaborative,” she said.

“I might come forward and say, ‘We need more people in this area; for example, in accounts’, and that I’ll manage it, and they would completely support me with that.

“Or they might come forward to me and say, ‘This area of the business is really growing, and we need someone here. What do you think?’ and I would always be happy to do that.

“It just always feels like we’re a team at National Group and we see where we need improvement and perhaps where we need more staff. We call a meeting, come together and see if it’s viable and go from there.”

Nicholls reflected on her time as a receptionist when she offered to take on more responsibility.

“When I was a receptionist, I wasn’t as busy at that time because the mining industry wasn’t as busy as what it is now,” she said. “I came forward and said, ‘I have time on my hands, I’m happy to learn accounting if that helps you guys’. So I took on a greater role.”

Nicholls said there is always open dialogue about new opportunities at National Group, and input is not just reserved for the executive team, with all employees able to communicate their ideas and desires.

More recently, Nicholls took on extra responsibility to assist other mine sites with their administrative work. But when she realised the workload was too much, she wasn’t shy in being honest.

“Once I took on the extra work, I realised there was a large workload, and I felt comfortable saying to them, ‘This is too much. I need more help’, and they’re always happy to assist with that,” she said.

“You can be honest and transparent and ask to take on more responsibility or you can say you’re struggling and that you need more help, and they’re always more than happy to figure that out with you.”

With the current labour shortages in the Australian mining industry, National Group’s employee-first focus creates an inclusive, accessible work culture and enables greater staff retention. Employees can dictate their own journey, which is particularly attractive in today’s job market.

As site administrator at Moolarben, Nicholls plays an important role in ensuring orders are communicated correctly to National Group’s head office on the Gold Coast.

“I enter the orders the maintenance team place into our accounting system, and I do the same for the parts or any items that are received here on site,” she said.

“This is very important because it’s directly linked to our accounts team at head office. When the accounts team receives an invoice for parts that we’ve ordered, they can go into the system and check that we have in fact ordered those items and we have received those parts which we’ve been charged for.

“I’m basically the middleman between what’s happening here on site and at head office. I oversee the expenses, the financials, how well machines are operating.

“This helps head office with their monthly reporting to track how well the company is doing and where we may need improvement.”

With National Group’s expanding Moolarben team, Nicholls has also been tasked with managing the on-boarding process for new staff and sub-contractors to ensure they comply with Yancoal’s requirements.

On-boarding tasks include booking accommodation for new employees on-site, collecting and processing information such as trade certificates and licences, and arranging medicals if required.

Nicholls said she didn’t know what to expect of the mining industry when she first began at National Group; however, her natural inquisitiveness meant she has become increasingly curious of the sector’s inner workings.

The interconnectedness of a company of National Group’s stature has also proved intriguing.

“The whole process of mining is really interesting to me,” she said.

“Everything we do out here on-site is so pivotal to everything they do at head office, but also everything they do at head office is so pivotal to keep everyone in jobs and moving out here at the mine site.

“So I just became really intrigued with how the whole business works and I think the step of coming onto a site after working at head office, it was that next thing I wanted to learn so much about and get really involved in the nitty gritty of what was happening.”

Nicholls hopes more women will consider a career in mining and at National Group, with more opportunities on the horizon given the sector’s continued growth.

“As a kindergarten teacher, I remember spending lots of time after work preparing for class the next day,” she said.

“Now I’m ordering parts for giant mining equipment at a coal mine and overseeing admin for the contract-mining operations. I’ve always been happy to step outside my comfort zone and experience new things.

“For me right now, that’s life at the Moolarben mine for National Group.” 

This feature first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Australian Mining.

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