Updating Results

Alcoa Australia

4.5
  • 1,000 - 50,000 employees

Katie Marshall

I love working with data. I spend a lot of time on Excel and our trending software looking for patterns and trying to understand what’s happening in the process.

Where did you grow up? What were some important stages of your life in regards to your schooling and education?

I attended Ranford Primary while living in Oakford, WA and then later moved to Harrisdale to be closer to Carey Baptist College, where I spent my high school years. I graduated from Carey in 2013 and started at Curtin University in 2014. I worked as a cashier at Canning Vale IGA for more than six years, starting in Year 10 and finishing at the end of my degree. I also had some casual employment at Curtin University through the Curtin Engineering Outreach team. 

At the end of 2014, I travelled to China for a short-term exchange program with eight other Curtin students. We stayed at the Wuhan Institute of Technology for three weeks and learnt about Chinese culture and engineering. In 2015, I went to Cambodia for a Humanitarian Design Summit with Engineers Without Borders and also spent three weeks completing an Indonesian language unit in Mataram, Lombok. In 2016, I spent my mid-year break doing work experience at Rio Tinto’s office in Perth and my end-of-year break doing vacation work at Alcoa’s Wagerup Refinery. Through volunteering, I also had some smaller trips to Kalgoorlie, Tom Price, Alice Springs and Melbourne.

How did you get to your current job position? For how long have you had it?

I received the Alcoa Bev Corless Women in Engineering Scholarship when I graduated high school, which helped fund my engineering studies. During my third year of study, I toured Alcoa’s bauxite mining and alumina refining operations and later that year secured a vacation work position at the company’s Wagerup Refinery. Vacation work allowed me to demonstrate my capabilities and network with people in the company. I was then fortunate enough to do my final year thesis with Alcoa’s Centre of Excellence in Kwinana. I did the lab work component of my thesis on site, which kept me connected to Alcoa and enabled me to continue learning about the Bayer process. I accepted a position in Alcoa’s graduate program in January 2018, which runs for three years. I’ve been gaining experience at Wagerup Refinery for the past year and will transfer to Pinjarra Refinery in mid 2019 for the second half of the graduate program.

How did you choose your specialisation? Were you weighing up any other alternatives before choosing this specialisation?

I didn’t really know much about engineering at all! I knew I wanted to pursue a career that involved maths and science, so this helped guide me towards engineering. I really enjoyed chemistry at school, so in Year 11 I attended a program at UWA called ‘A Day in the Life of a Chemistry Student’. While I was there, I met some like-minded people and many of them were talking about doing engineering. So, in Year 12, I attended UWA’s event ‘A Day in the Life of an Engineering Student’, which gave me an overview of the different fields of engineering. Chemical engineering appealed to me the most. I liked the idea of being able to take a material in its raw form and turn it into something useful. I went around to all of the university open days asking lots of questions and in the end decided I would give engineering a go. I was looking for a challenging career and it was sold to me as a problem-solving job, which I thought was a perfect fit.

What was your interview process like? What kind of questions were you asked?

My interview process was fairly standard. I completed the online application and was called in for an interview. There was a panel of four people: someone from operations, two chemical engineers and a HR representative. They asked me a series of questions; mainly checking my alignment with the company values and what my career aspirations were. They also asked me to give examples demonstrating certain behaviours. A few weeks later I went to Chandler Mcleod in Perth to complete psychometric testing. I was then called for a medical and not long after that I had a job offer. 

What does your employer do?

Producing aluminium requires three key steps: mining the bauxite, refining it into alumina and then smelting it into aluminium. Alcoa operates in each of these three areas and treats them as separate business units. I work in the Alumina Business Unit. 

Alcoa is the world's leading producer of alumina. We currently operate six refineries in Australia, Brazil and Spain and have a joint venture in Saudi Arabia. Three of these six refineries (Kwinana, Pinjarra and Wagerup) are located in Western Australia, making WA the world's biggest single source of alumina – able to supply eight per cent of the global market. These three refineries are fed by two bauxite mine sites, Huntly and Willowdale. The alumina we produce is then shipped to one of Alcoa’s smelters or exported to overseas markets.

What are your areas of responsibility?

I work in the calcination area of the refinery. This is essentially the last step of the Bayer process, where the slurry of precipitated alumina is filtered and calcined to remove the free and chemically-bound moisture. Some of my key responsibilities include:

  • Product quality: monitoring and controlling surface areas, product soda, impurities and superfines content etc.
  • Forecasting: estimating our alumina production and storage inventories. 
  • Minimising waste: identifying areas where we can reduce the amount of raw materials we use, eg energy and caustic.
  • Projects: identifying business cases and driving improvements through projects.
  • Communication: ensuring there is collaboration between the Operations team and the Technical team.

Can you describe a typical work day?

My schedule tends to change day to day, which I love. I typically wake up at 5.45 am and leave my house in Mandurah at 6.25 am. Sometimes I drive myself and sometimes I carpool with a group of colleagues. It takes me about 50 minutes to get to work, which starts at 7.30 am. 

The first thing I do is spend about 15 minutes reviewing the product quality and process performance in my area. At 7.45 am I go to meet with the operators and we go through specific KPIs for the area. I highlight any concerns and we might have a chat about any issues that they are facing. I then go to another meeting at 8.00 am with the operations management for the area and we determine the top priorities for the day, highlighting any safety and environmental risks/concerns. This finishes at 8:30am. 

From here my day could go anywhere. I often take a walk around to observe the equipment and check how things are looking physically. Then I go back to my desk and work through my priorities. I might update my forecasts, send out some instructions, develop a business case, create a process plan for a shutdown and attend meetings. It all goes so fast and then my day finishes at 3.30 pm.

What was the last thing you worked on?

The last thing I worked on was a project to increase the size of the center hub of a pan filter. I was asked by the mechanical engineer to develop a business case for it, so I had to review:

  • the current condition of the filter,
  • what would likely happen to the product if the hub size was increased,
  • whether this would this present any savings to the company, and
  • how we would monitor the impact.

What are the career prospects with your job? Where could you or others in your position go from here?

There are two main pathways I can choose from; I could either continue as an engineer and work my way up to a senior or consultant engineer, or I could go into operations and work towards becoming a group leader, supervisor, manager or beyond. If I wanted, I could try a secondment into something totally different, such as procurement, research and development, business improvement and so forth. I’m still not sure where I would like to end up, but I think I would like to at least try a few different roles to broaden my experience. 

Could someone with a different background do your job?

Alcoa typically employs chemical engineers or metallurgists for my role. In my opinion, the main skills required are attention to detail, being able to recognise and interpret patterns, communication skills, the ability to prioritise and time management skills.

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

I honestly have no idea! A lot of friends told me they were trying to choose between engineering and architecture, but architecture was never on the table for me. I had a moment at the end of my Year 12 exams where I freaked out. I thought engineering was a bad decision and nearly changed courses to international relations with the idea of becoming a diplomat. Thankfully I decided to stick with my decision to become an engineer because it has given me some amazing opportunities and I have absolutely no regrets. It can be so overwhelming trying to choose a career when you’re barely 18 years old, so have an open mind and try to get some work experience if possible.

What do you love the most about your job? Which kind of task do you enjoy the most? 

I love working with data. I spend a lot of time on Excel and our trending software looking for patterns and trying to understand what’s happening in the process. I also love the people part of my job. I get to work with people from all parts of the business and I’ve found adapting information to suit different audiences can be both challenging and fun. My role is so fast paced; things change every day and there is always something to work on, so I never get bored.

Do you bear a lot of responsibility? Do you have to work on weekends? Are the stress levels high?

I usually log on over the weekend and do some quick checks. The expectation is that if there is a major problem, I would spend some time on the phone or computer working through it. I find there is a very good work-life balance and it’s quite rare for me to get a phone call on the weekend. 

Sometimes forecasting things can be stressful, especially if there are a lot of unknown factors. Forecasts are things that can tend to go quite far in business, so it is important to be able to clearly state your assumptions, be confident in what you put forward and present the information in a way that appeals to management. 

Some days the stress levels are high, especially if you have a lot of trips or equipment failures, but as long everyone in the team respects each other, then it’s just a matter of working through the situation.

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

  • Apply for everything! You would be surprised how many opportunities are out there that people don’t apply for because they assume they won’t be successful. Apply for scholarships, trips interstate or overseas, work experience etc.
  • Volunteer! You meet so many people through volunteering and it really develops your soft skills. Being a good engineer is as much about your interpersonal skills as it is your technical skills. Volunteering teaches you how to interact with others, what motivates different people and how to effectively manage your time. It also teaches you about your own leadership style and how you can get the best out of people.
  • Don’t give up! It is hard and everyone feels like quitting at times (especially during exams), but at the end of the day, it’s short-term pain for long-term gain. Vacation work and work experience can be the best motivation because you get the chance to experience life as an engineer. It helps you to see the light at the end of the tunnel.