Karen Sonnekus: Charting a different course

Published: 09/03/2013

13 January 2009

HAVING abandoned a family tradition of pursuing a naval career, South African-born Karen Sonnekus says she does not regret choosing her vocation. An associate geotechnical engineer with Coffey Mining in Melbourne, Sonnekus is settled into a career path in mining, and life in Australia.

Sonnekus says her key challenges are “working with people; keeping them motivated and challenged through highs and lows; and maintaining a standard of behaviour that is consistent with Coffey’s values and beliefs”.

She is also a mine geotechnical team leader, which puts her in charge of ensuring there are adequate resources and job prospects available to meet the team’s productivity targets.

“The mine geotechnical team plays a key role in the company’s overall strategy moving forward as the industry starts to face the emerging challenges resulting from the market downturn,” Sonnekus told HighGrade. “Our clients will increasingly seek innovative ways to improve the efficiency and safety of their operations and we are well positioned to provide cost-efficient solutions.”

Sonnekus manages to balance her full-time career with caring for a nearly four-year-old daughter. She has a second child due in March and will have three months off before resuming full-time work.

She said Coffey was very supportive of colleagues and their need to balance family life. “I am fortunate that we have flexible working hours in our office, with both the office manager and other staff being very supportive of my situation,” she said. “We are having a baby/children’s room set-up (with change table, bassinette, toys, TV, etc for the older kids) in the office to make the transition from maternity leave to coming back to work smoother for the mums. They have already implemented this in our Hobart office and apparently it is working fantastic.”

Sonnekus emigrated to Australia in 2001 with her husband, who got a job working for Western Mining in Kambalda, and did a seven-month stint as exploration geologist in 2001-02 before starting with Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines. In August 2004, she worked as a geotechnical engineer for Xstrata Zinc at its Black Star opencut mine near Mount Isa, before moving to Coffey in 2005. Before coming to Australia she worked at De Beers’ Finsch diamond mind as an engineering geologist and with Anglo Platinum after she graduated from Pretoria University with Bachelor of Science Geology III, Engineering Geology III and Bachelor of Science Honours (Engineering Geology).

But she could just have easily chosen a different career path. “Our family comes from a long line of navy tradition, so it was no surprise that I was one of the few selected women in South Africa who was chosen to complete their training for a career path in the navy during 1992,” Sonnekus said. “However, I have always been interested in the natural sciences and at the same time applied for a geology scholarship through the Council of Geosciences (South Africa). When I was accepted both for the navy and the scholarship, it was difficult choosing, but I know now that I’ve made the right choice. At the end of the day I am very happy with the project challenges in mining and also working with a range of people.”

Sonnekus said she was lucky to have strong family support and guidance, which has helped her to reach her career goals. “My maternal grandfather has always been a huge source of inspiration,” she said. “Even though he has been dead for the past 10 years, I can still find comfort in all his wisdom and love that he has passed on to me. Professionally, two of the people who have inspired me were my crystallography lecturer (Prof. Eric Fortsch) ¿ a Bavarian with a somewhat eruptive (short-term only) personality, but with a heart of solid gold. Also, at the same time, I gained great insight into the world of mining challenges from my then engineering geology lecturer, Prof. Alfonso (Monty) van Schalkwyk.”

Having a “very supportive” regional manager at Coffey, Don Miller, and geotechnical discipline leader, Dr Peter Fuller, to turn to for advice and mentoring, Sonnekus says she will continue to develop her career at Coffey Mining. “I would like to make my way up the corporate ladder, but still be able to provide technical advice and work directly with the younger staff on a mentoring basis,” she said.

Sonnekus, who likes nothing more than spending time with her family and building models (“planes and lately sports cars”), believes the mining industry has plenty to offer young people considering career choices. “First of all, the mining industry is a very challenging industry,” she said. “Within the geotechnical (mining) field there is a wide variety of interesting fields to pursue, for example seismicity, instrumentation, numerical modelling. “Secondly, you can consider either opencut mining or underground mining, each with its own challenges. “Lastly, compensation is usually very good (compared to other industries) and sometimes you have the opportunity to travel to other parts of the world/country in order to complete a project.”

This article was first printed in HighGrade (www.highgrade.net).