Pilbara schools need continued help

_MG_4102It was exciting to be able to return to the Pilbara recently with the University of Western Australia in its centenary year as part of the UWA Gives Back program.

I recall vivid memories of my positive childhood and education living in the remote mining communities of Dampier, Karratha and Newman in the late 1960s and ’70s.

After completing my entire high school education at Mt Newman, I was the fortunate beneficiary of a BHP scholarship, which enabled me to attend UWA and complete a B.Ec (Hons) in 1984.

In the nearly 30 years since then, I have worked interstate and abroad, culminating in a position as a partner and co- founder in 1998 of the US based private equity firm Resource Capital Funds.

RCF manages more than $3bn on behalf of mostly US institutions – many of whom are education institutions – with instructions to invest in the global mining industry.

But while I work as a fund manager now, I come from a working-class family.

My father was an electrician and my sister and three brothers pursued vocational careers, with two of them ultimately completing university degrees as mature-age students.

Their achievements highlight that there are different pathways to success in life and while regional schooling can be challenging, it should not be considered a major impediment.

The recent UWA Gives Back trip was all about engaging, interacting and, importantly, reassuring regional students that they should never feel their opportunities are limited.

That being said it is imperative that corporations and individuals – whether for commercial reasons or purely from a philanthropic perspective – support the aspirations of regional students to seek higher education and alternative career choices.

It is sad with the onset of fly- in fly-out workforces to see the deterioration of some communities in regional areas.

By way of example, Newman Senior High School had more than 500 students in the late ’70s and the number is now only 229.

The fall in student numbers inevitably limits the amount of available resources and the breadth of education that can be offered.

Thankfully, there is a renewed focus on improving regional education opportunities, but this is really only starting to address the neglect of many decades of under- investment.

Strong encouragement needs to be given to corporations and governments so they sustain this focus even as the rapid growth of the resources industry slows.

It is great to see organisations, such as the UWA, and schools, such as Methodist Ladies College, maintain this focus as they provide choices that help students pursue alternative pathways to tertiary education.

Aspire UWA, in particular, works with partner schools, such as Newman SHS, to increase participation in higher education.

I joined Aspire UWA and the UWA Business School’s Pilbara tour to visit local schools and encourage students to study business and aim for leadership roles in their future careers.

As a UWA Business School graduate, I am very aware that our society can only reach its full potential if our government, business and community leaders are drawn from a wide cross-section of society.

I found that my background growing up in mining towns gave me a career advantage because I had credibility when talking to the mining industry.

After all, I lived the industry and its many changes and evolutions, and likewise students in regional areas should not underestimate the advantages that their unique perspectives can bring to a career in resources.

I always relish the opportunity to speak about my career and those of others I know, who grew up in regional areas and continued on to successful lives.

I hope these stories act as encouragement to today’s students.

I would also like to thank BHP Billiton for having the foresight in 1980 to develop a program of scholarships in the Pilbara that was a major contributor to my career choices and success.

James McClements is a global private equity fund manager and former student of Newman Senior High School

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