The money might be good but does it come at a cost? Those who live the FIFO lifestyle will likely tell you they've earned every single penny of that money in terms of life style adjustments, sacrifices, long roster cycles, body clock adjustments and plain hard work! And then some!
A Few Facts About FIFO
Australia is acknowledged as the FIFO capital of the world, particularly in the mining industry. In Australia's biggest mining state alone (literally, economically and resourcefully) there were around 60,000 – 65,000 FIFO resource sector workers in 2015 accounting for ~65% of the total resources sector workforce in that state.
Most FIFO workers are in the 35-54 age group and whilst many are male, there are also women who work FIFO. Some companies report implementing measures designed to increase numbers of female FIFO staff but the fact remains that often a FIFO job does not fit in with raising a family. Therefore many women opt to leave once they start a family.
Contrary to the perception that many FIFO workers are tradespeople and semi skilled workers, FIFO jobs cover the whole spectrum of mining industry roles. There are FIFO geologists, engineers, accountants, lawyers, tradespeople, supply chain and support people, machinery operators and administrators. As well as FIFO management professionals and executives.
The FIFO model has been adopted in other countries, notably in the Northern Canadian oil fields where around 90% of entry level jobs in that sector are FIFO.
The Expat FIFO Professional
Whilst many Australian FIFO employees do work in various remote regions of Australia there are also a fair few who work overseas. Companies running mining operations in Africa or Indonesia for example find it hard to locally source the types of skills and training required to run these operations. This creates a demand for FIFO mining professionals from more advanced mining countries like Australia. Many of these professionals choose FIFO over relocating their families for various reasons – security, political instability, education, living standards etc. However, there are also mining professionals who do prefer to relocate overseas with their families, particularly for long term positions.
This international expat mining community, whether FIFO or residential, is vitally important for many reasons. It provides qualified staffing for operations in countries that would otherwise find it impossible to get enough people onboard to operate a mine. These mining expats also often provide on job training and advice that is not available for local workers.
In Australia the reason for this preponderance of FIFO workers is due to the vast distances and extreme remoteness of most of the country's resource sites. However, FIFO wasn't always the common way of staffing these remote mining sites. Up until the mid to late 1900's most mining companies either utilised the closest local town, developing and expanding it to accommodate semi-permanent relocation of their workers and families, or they purpose built new mining company towns. Some of these towns are still vibrant, thriving communities today long after mining operations have closed down. They were able to diversify and residents found other sources of employment. Other towns, unable to do this, closed down along with the mining operations responsible for their construction.
Building your own town and having to be responsible for maintaining it however is expensive and it can take a long time to get the required approvals. Then there is the added problem of trying to get qualified personnel to relocate with their families to some of these remote locations. With the advent of affordable, reliable and rapid transportation many mining companies started to fly workers in from other areas on a temporary basis. The workers would work a number of days or weeks on site then fly home for a short time before flying back to site to complete another roster cycle. FIFO had arrived! For the mining companies it was cheaper to do this and house these workers in purpose built camps than it was to build and maintain small towns.
For the FIFO worker it meant they didn't have to uproot their entire family. They could enjoy the benefits of having a very well paid job whilst still enjoying the benefits of urban living. It gave them a lifestyle they wouldn't otherwise have been able to afford working on 'city' salaries. It also made it easier to change jobs or relocate to another mining site when the only thing that really had to change was which plane you hopped on to where. Your family life remained unchanged.
The Dark Side Of A FIFO Job
However, and it's a big however, several decades down the track and flaws in the FIFO system are appearing. Whilst many FIFO workers enjoy the lifestyle and wouldn't have it any other way, there are also many who feel 'trapped'. They've developed a lifestyle that relies on the type of income they earn doing FIFO but they no longer enjoy FIFO work. There are the long hours of work, the strain of being away from family and friends for long periods of time, missing important milestones in their family's lives, the isolation of the camp and the many hours spent commuting between home and site.
There are also significant mental health issues increasingly associated with the FIFO lifestyle. These include stress, depression, anxiety, sadness and loneliness. For instance, the suicide rate amongst FIFO workers in Australia is calculated to be nearly 5 times higher than in the general population.
Whilst some companies are taking steps to address the mental health well being of their FIFO teams by providing help lines, counselling services and other support mechanisms, it's far from uniform. And sadly the reality is that many of the health issues faced by FIFO workers remain largely unaddressed by employers, authorities and governments alike. Even though problems like high depression rates costs the mining industry billions each year.
The FIFO Lifestyle And Family Life
Surprisingly several small studies have found that the families, and particularly the children, of many FIFO workers cope remarkably well considering they virtually have 2 lives – one when only one parent is home and one when both parents are home. A lot of how a FIFO lifestyle affects their family life depends on how the family as a unit manages the transitions between these 2 lives they lead. Some children of FIFO workers do report feeling sad or anxious when the FIFO parent leaves for work but on the whole, most of them deal with it well.
On the other side of the coin there are also those families, and children, who do not cope well. And the common theme arising out of the studies done thus far on this topic is that there is a lot more research needed to fully explore, and understand, all the various effects of a FIFO lifestyle on all parties involved. And on all aspects of their lives – family, social and work.