In November 2008, ‘Silvan’ a young man contemplating his future, voiced one of his key concerns on Whirlpool, a discussion forum: was aeronautical engineering worth the risk?
Silvan was contemplating enrolling in a five year degree at the University of New South Wales, but was concerned about his post graduate employment prospects.
“I’m really into it. But just about every person I’ve talked to about it, has told me not to do it as I wouldn’t find a job” he said.
That was more than three years ago, and the discussion did not indicate whether Silvan did indeed enroll for his course. Today, however, despite an expected continuing shortage of engineers, prospective students in many areas of engineering may well look at recent job cuts at Qantas, Holden, Toyota and elsewhere and ask themselves the same question.
More broadly, some of the recently announced cuts have raised fears about Australia’s ability to develop the breadth of engineering skills it needs to maintain competitiveness going forward. Bill Shorten, Minister for Workplace Relations, expressed concern about this during an interview with the ABC last week. Once skills in particular disciplines are lost, he warned, they are hard to replace.
Already, Australia has a shortage of skilled engineers in some areas. In its latest Clarius Skills Index (September 2011), employment services provider Clarius Group singled out engineering as one of three main disciplines likely to be hit with a significant skills shortage in the near future. In that report, the index of availability for ‘Mechanical and Fabrication Engineering Tradespersons’ registered 112.2 – well above the 100 mark which separates shortages of labour from oversupply.
Going forward, such shortages are expected to intensify because of demand for engineers on mining projects and a loss of skills to retirement. Within the next few years, Clarius estimates that 18% of engineers throughout the country are set to retire.
Despite this, if job cuts continue and prospects in areas like aircraft engineering and mechanical engineering deteriorate, prospective new trainees like Silvan may either suffer from a lack of employment opportunities after graduation or simply be dissuaded from studying engineering altogether.
“No point studying something for 5 years then ending up at Centrelink” he rather hesitantly concluded.