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Alcoa Australia

  • #7 in Mining, energy, oil and gas
  • 1,000 - 50,000 employees

Dannielle MacKenzie

Alcoa aligned with my values and provided a structured graduate program with plenty of opportunities for professional development.

Where did you grow up?

Being the daughter of a Deputy Principal meant a few moves in my early years. Starting in Perth until the age of six, we then moved out to Merredin – three hours east of Perth, in the heart of the Wheatbelt – three years out there before moving back to the coast and landing in Mandurah. I then spent my late primary years and all of high school in Mandurah; with a huge passion for netball, I had a very busy schedule juggling study, training, part-time work and social life.

Graduating high school, I jumped straight into my double degree at Curtin University. I grabbed the university life with both hands and wanted to experience as much as I could. In my second year, I was accepted to attend a short-term mobility program for Science and Engineering students in China, where we spent two weeks at a university and another two weeks travelling and experiencing the culture (and food!). Third-year had me move out to Kalgoorlie to the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) for my metallurgy intensive year. This year really opened up my eyes to the possibility of entering the mining sector and by the end of the year had secured a three month vacation work experience with one of the big gold producers. This was an invaluable experience and shaped the way I saw my future. 

Moving back to Perth in 2016 for a semester had me with itchy feet, so I went and explored opportunities to study abroad. I was lucky enough to pick up a scholarship to live and study in Sarawak, Malaysia for a semester with one of my best friends and my boyfriend. We experienced so much in the 5 months we were there and in between studying we’d be on a plane exploring the amazing country – Mulu Caves being on the top of the list.

Leaving Malaysia, I came back to Perth to do another three-month vacation experience, except this time in a chloralkali processing plant. It was the opposite end of the spectrum compared to my time on a FIFO mine site, with a larger emphasis on the design side of engineering rather than the “get your hands dirty” approach I had experienced the summer before. Again, a huge learning opportunity.

Summer was coming to an end at the beginning of 2016 and the end of my degree was looming, so I did the less-responsible thing and decided to take a semester off from my studies and travel Europe – and I have zero regrets. The break was exactly what I needed before returning to the intense year that was “thesis and design project”. Chuck one more vacation work experience in there with a titanium dioxide processing plant and I had finally figured out where I saw myself going in my career and had finished studying.

How did you get to your current job position?

During my final year of university, I started the ever-pressing task of applying for graduate positions. My three lots of vacation work had helped me to define what I wanted out of a graduate position and company, it equipped me with the ability to critically analyse job adverts and ask the right questions in interviews.

I have now been with Alcoa for a year and two months – Alcoa aligned with my values and provided a structured graduate program with plenty of opportunities for professional development. The role of chemical engineer in the refinery meant that I would be hands-on, in the field, with direct access to a multitude of people and specialties. In other words, it ticked all the boxes.

How did you choose your specialisation?

High school had a huge influence on my career choice. I had always been interested in science and technology subjects and the ability to manipulate physical and chemical properties to create something useful. My double degree was the perfect fit for this. I chose Curtin over other universities for its hands-on, practical approach to learning – they offered the opportunity to get in the labs on day one and it meant that I would be immersed in the mining world with my year at WASM. This, along with my on-site vacation experiencing cemented my desire to work in the mineral resources industry.

As a chemical engineer there many, many avenues that one can take their career. For me, it was hands-on experiences that helped me decide and I can not emphasise that enough.

What was your interview process like?

The interview process with Alcoa was like that of many mining companies. The aim of the questions was to gain an understanding of situations I had been in, from a work, university, or life perspective, and how I handled them. Examples of times I had worked in a team, dealt with difficult situations or people, and my thoughts on safety were some of the big hitters. The STAR (situation, task, action, and response) answering method helped me to articulate these experiences.

What does your employer do?

The Western Australian Operations of Alcoa mine bauxite from a couple of locations in the southwest and then transport it to one of the three refineries for alumina processing. The alumina is then sold to smelters to make aluminum or used in other processes like water treatment.

What are your areas of responsibility?

I am responsible for a specialty product at Kwinana referred to as Bright Hydrate. As the name suggests, Bright Hydrate is a brighter, more refined hydrated alumina that contains less impurities. My role is to optimise the process to get the most out of it. I look at daily metrics to ensure we are hitting our process conditions – temperature, liquor concentrations, solids loading – and I look forward to ways of improving or adding to the circuit to maximise production. I am part of a greater team of technical, operations, and maintenance personnel, and the collaborations between this team are paramount for success.

Can you describe a typical workday?

A typical day starts with me assessing the last fourteen hours – being a 24/7 processing facility, the process doesn’t stop when I go home. I look over trends and process critical parameters and assess what can be done to optimise. I then meet with my team and we discuss our priorities and actions for the day to ensure the process is running to its maximum performance. I will do some troubleshooting if the answers are not in front of me which can involve me analysing data, getting out into the field, asking questions of the operators, and then making some adjustments.

I then start to focus on the bigger picture in ways we can continue to improve. I’ll look at capital projects and the impact they could have and work on ways to increase production. One of our latest improvement projects saw us install an additional pump to an area to allow adequate duty/standby configurations to cover us during planned maintenance and unplanned breakdowns.

What are the career prospects of your job?

There are a number of different avenues that can be taken as a chemical engineer on the refinery. There is the option to stay technical and advance your career to a higher level in the engineering space – whether that be a day to day area chemical engineering or move into projects work. Alternatively, it is common for some of the engineers to venture into more of a production line management role when your responsibilities shift from the technical to more of the people and operations management. However, that really isn’t all – once on the refinery it is apparent how many different roles and opportunities there are and the career progression might not strictly linear but there is definitely room for growth.

What would your career be if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now? 

Science, problems, and people – these are my passions. I imagine that if I didn’t pursue the engineering route I’d probably end up doing something that still involved these aspects. Whether that be entering the health science world or teaching science – who knows.

What do you love the most about your job?

The dynamic aspect of my job is super fun, sometimes exhausting, but ever challenging. You are thrown so many different problems and changing conditions that you constantly have to be on your toes and ready to respond. There is never a dull moment and I am always learning new things. I love being part of a team – I think this comes back to my netball days – but the ability to draw on the strengths of others and contribute yourself not only drives great results but also gives you a sense of purpose.

What’s the biggest limitation of your job?

The challenge of my job is that I rely heavily on other people and resource availability. Often the problems we have require maintenance or equipment resources that are tied up on other jobs. The ability to quantify the impact from production and monetary perspective helps to prioritise tasks and justify your needs over others – there is a lot of negotiating and communication skills are critical.

Which three pieces of advice would you give to a current university student?

  • EXPERIENCE, EXPERIENCE, EXPERIENCE – get as much as you can. Apply for vacation work in a broad range of locations, job types, commodities, rosters, whatever you can get your hands on. It’ll make narrowing down what you want to do and what you like much easier when it’s time to make career choices, and it’ll develop your professional skills before you’ve even graduated.
  • Ensure you have balance – university should not just be about classes, assignments, and getting the top grade (keep in mind that is still important). Make an effort to do a range of activities to build your soft skills too. Play a team sport, be the captain, join a club, show some leadership, apply for exchange, get out of your comfort zone, try something new. Employers want to know what you bring to the table, everyone has the degree, what sets you apart from the rest.
  • Networking may be scary but it’ll help you in ways you’d never expect – attending events, talking to industry reps, or even just asking someone a question on LinkedIn can all help you develop your career. You don’t have to treat the conversation like an interview, get to know the person, find out if they have any tips for you or if they have a contact that might be able to help, keep in mind they’ve been in your shoes too.