Few people in Australia would have a better understanding of what the shortage of skilled engineers looks like than Dave Robertson, Chief Executive Officer of McDonnell Dowell, a construction, engineering, building and maintenance firm.
Not only are his staff regularly poached by competitors with offers of significantly higher salaries, Robertson laments, but he actually gets people coming to him and telling him that they did not want to leave but had just been offered a 50% increase in salary and could not refuse.
“You say, ‘Well how did they [the prospective employer] know what to offer you?’” Robertson says. “And they’d [the employee] say ‘They don’t and they still haven’t asked us. They just said 50% [increase] in terms of what you get paid now. Well pay you that’”.
Such a shortage has key national consequences, including compromises in Australia’s ability to deliver large infrastructure projects on time and within budget, a reduced engineering capacity to transition to a low carbon economy and at the extremity, reduced levels of safety in design of critical infrastructure.
In a recent report to the federal government, the Australian National Engineering Taskforce (ANET), which was formed by a number of scientific and engineering bodies around the country to represent the industrial, commercial and academic interests of the engineering sector, outlined a roadmap to what it says are essential steps needed to address the shortage of engineers around the country.
What the Fed Should Do
Whilst ANET says much of the work needed to address the problem remains the responsibility of the private sector, it says the federal government, both as an employer of engineers and procurer of engineering services, has a significant role to play.
Specifically, ANET would like to see action from the government in the following areas:
- More graduates.
With domestic graduations providing only half of the 20,000 engineers ANET says its members have previously estimated to be needed each year, the taskforce believes the federal government should aim to boost the size of the domestic engineering workforce.
In this regard, ANET wants the government to adopt targets for an increased number of domestic engineering graduates from both higher education and Vocational Education Training (VET) programs.
- Beef up own procurement.
ANET says a diminished engineering capacity within government itself has eroded the federal government’s ability to act as an informed buyer and therefore affected the value that the government itself, as a procurer of engineering services, brings to the table in infrastructure projects.
It says the government should beef up its own capacity to act as an informed purchaser of engineering infrastructure by establishing a small Procurement Unit within the Department of Finance and Deregulation, conducting an audit of its procurement ability across all agencies (and encourage states to do likewise) and, following the audit, develop baseline requirements regarding engineering competence to apply to government bodies across all jurisdictions.
- Make it interesting.
In order to attract more graduates, ANET says governments (and the private sector) need to boost the image of engineering as a career path amongst students.
This would be done by establishing an Office of the Engineer, which would assess the effectiveness of current engineering programs and also develop a marketing and promotional program for the profession aimed at school teachers, students and the general public. The program would highlight the breadth and diversity of the engineering field and the presence of engineers in leadership roles.
- Increase diversity.
The lack of diversity in the workforce is becoming increasingly recognised throughout the industry – especially with regard to the low participation rates of women.
ANET also says a further problem exists with regard to the number of qualified engineers who are not actually working in the engineering profession.
Whilst most of the drive to encourage greater workforce diversity will come from the private sector, ANET says the government, as an employer of engineers and procurer of engineering services, has a significant role to play. To assist in recruiting migrant engineers, ANET says the government should develop materials to help assess their competence and qualifications, ensure the English language requirements of the current migration scheme are adequate and fund an orientation program to assist migrant engineers to integrate into the Australian workforce.
ANET also says the government should fund a grants program for bridging courses to enable departed engineers back into the workforce and should also develop a mentoring program for new engineering graduates across all public services.
Finally, ANET says special efforts should be made in the marketing program referred to above to attract women, engineers working in a non-engineering capacity and retired engineers back into the engineering workforce.
Engineers play an essential role in many areas of modern life, especially with regard to the safe and effective design of products, buildings and infrastructure.
Already, much effort is underway to address the grass root challenges of attracting more suitable candidates into the profession. Robogals, a program designed to promote engineering as a career path to young girls which won founder Marita Cheng the Young Australian of the Year award, is a key example.
Still, more needs to be done if Australia is to minimise the impact of an engineering shortage over coming years.