Consultants nurture growth opportunities, Business News 28/10/2019

about 1 month ago

The environmental consulting sector is an effective leading indicator of WA’s economic performance, and industry leaders are noticing a big improvement.

The growing number of opportunities now available for the state’s environmental consultants is a welcome relief for an industry that took a battering during Western Australia’s recent downturn.

While traditional sources of work such as mining and infrastructure have provided a steady stream of positions in the past year, new sources of work have sprung up.

RPS general manager WA David Sim said there was lots of demand from mining expansion projects, and exploration growth in oil and gas.

Mr Sim told Business News projects in hydrogen and renewables were emerging sectors.

“There’s a lot more activity in renewables, solar and wind projects,” he said.

Going into 2020, RPS will be particularly focused on the water sector.

“The water supply in Perth continues to be a really topical issue,” Mr Sim said.

“One of the things we’re working on at the moment is innovation around water capture and storage, managed aquifer recharge.

“We have to make sure we supplement our groundwater resources.

“Managed aquifer recharge is innovation in terms of how we secure Perth’s future water supply.

“It’s not all around desalination; that can be expensive.”

Managed aquifer recharge takes water, such as stormwater, and moves it into aquifers for reuse or environmental benefit.

Mr Sim said the market would also be waiting for the outcome of the Westport outer harbour taskforce.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what government does with the recommendations from the Westport committee, that’s due at the end of the year,” he said.

GHD market leader environment, Nick Houldsworth, said it felt like the upturn in demand was sustainable and across multiple markets.

Mr Houldsworth agreed that new opportunities, such as lithium mining and the hydrogen economy, were supplementing traditional sources of work such as iron ore, gold and infrastructure.

“The upturn feels more sustainable, spread across a diverse range of markets and subsectors,” Mr Houldsworth said.

Astron managing director Julian Kruger is optimistic for his Margaret River-based consultancy.

“Things are going well at the moment,” Mr Kruger said.

“It’s a lot easier to find opportunities now than it was a couple of years ago.”

He said mining and government work had both picked up.

That included new iron ore developments, rehabilitation of old mines, and jobs with utilities such as Water Corporation.

Astron is one of numerous consulting businesses moving into new offerings or markets, in this case geospatial services – acquiring and analysing data from sources such as drones and satellites.

“We built a geospatial team, that’s probably the biggest growth area for us,” Mr Kruger said.

“We could service more work on the biodiversity side of things, but we’re just going to hold steady; last time we probably grew a bit too rapidly.”

One example of Astron’s geospatial activity was mapping Victoria’s wetlands using imagery from Geoscience Australia to track years of changes.

Astron was also working in overseas markets such as Guinea and India.

“People are definitely more comfortable with geospatial services, they’ve seen some of the real applications,” Mr Kruger said.

“Mine closure plans are getting approved by the regulator with remote sensing as the key monitoring technique.”

Earlier this year, Subiaco-based Strategen merged with national firm JBS&G.

Strategen-JBS&G executive director Darren Walsh said the deal had given the business more depth and ability to offer more services.

With about 200 people in the business nationally, there was more capability for supporting environmental approvals after the merger, Mr Walsh said.

He said JBS&G had been particularly strong in contaminated sites and remediation work in WA, and that the merger had roughly doubled the size of that team.

BMT principal marine ecologist Glenn Shiell told Business News the company’s local office had been winning work in the United Arab Emirates.

“In the oil and gas industry ... a lot of it is reflected by oil pricing and as things improve it seems to be picking up,” Mr Shiell said.

“We do work in the Middle East, in the UAE particularly; they’re definitely seeing a turnaround there, it’s a lot more bouyant.

“At the moment, it’s almost a FIFO arrangement, we’re flying backwards and forwards.

“It’s getting to the point where we’re starting to think about some of the options.

“We’ve just found the way we conduct business, the way the environment is regulated in Australia, particularly WA, seems to really resonate with our clients in the UAE.

“We work with the environment agency out of Abu Dhabi.

“We picked up an initial project, they saw the way we were operating, the tools we were applying.

“Some of those tools have been developed here with the WA EPA in mind … and we’ve taken them across to the Middle East.”

Locally, there was also cause for optimism.

“We can actually say now things are finally starting to turn around,” Mr Shiell said.

“There’s a lot of consistency to the workflow.”

Finding workers

GHD’s Mr Houldsworth said the biggest challenge was getting the right workforce.

“At the same time, we’re increasingly looking to hire,” he said.

“There’s actually a shortage of good people out there.

“It’s challenging to find people.

“The focus for the past five or six years for employees has been to find secure roles.

“In the previous boom we were just shipping people in from over east or offshore.

“Now we’ve got an east coast infrastructure boom with so many large projects… we can’t.”

Strategen-JBS&G’s Mr Walsh agreed it was difficult to fill some positions.

“At the graduate level it’s still good, we’ve got a pretty strong graduate program,” he said.

“There’s certainly still a gap in the WA market in terms of senior experienced people, it’s never changed despite the downturn.

“It’s still often a challenge in Perth to fill a senior, experienced role.

“Part of it is people are tending to stay put a bit more over the past four or five years, people can see moving organisations as a risk.

“During the boom times people would move around a bit.

“It’s still a bit of a constraint on our sorts of businesses in Perth.”