The Australian Universities Accord Interim Report is a fantastic step forward in strengthening the engineering profession. But Engineers Australia has a few extra strategies to bring about long-lasting change.
In the University Accord’s report outlining a vision for the future of Australia’s higher education system, I was delighted to see engineering repeatedly mentioned as a profession that is critical to Australia’s future.
As we know, many of our national priorities rely on engineering. From delivering an enormous and resilient infrastructure pipeline, building a sovereign manufacturing capability, reaching our energy transition and net zero emissions goals, preserving biodiversity and building a circular economy, through to delivering on AUKUS nuclear submarine and other Defence capabilities, and cybersecurity – our objectives as a nation all rely on technological systems, requiring engineers at all stages of their life cycles.
This prevalence of technology in our modern world has led to unprecedented demand for engineers, which will only continue to grow. But the profession continues to be beset by a skills supply challenges, rendering it unable to meet this demand.
We know that bolstering the engineering workforce requires a whole-of-pipeline approach, from sparking interest in science, maths and problem solving in school years through to retaining the qualified engineers we do have in the workforce. (Engineers have a very transferable skill set in design, systems thinking, quantitative analysis and structured thinking, which is highly valued across the economy.) Within this ecosystem, university education has a significant role to play.
While overseas-born engineers make up more than 60 per cent of the engineering workforce in Australia, we saw what happened during COVID-19 when borders closed and the flow of engineers coming into Australia was heavily reduced.
We also can’t assume there will be an indefinite supply of skilled migrant engineers who want to come to Australia. Other countries have introduced incentives to attract more skilled workers, such as the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act, and Canada’s revamped Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
To build Australia’s resilience and the capabilities we need, we absolutely need to train more young and older Australians to be engineers. We have an excellent engineering university sector — Australia’s engineering graduates have topped the Australian government’s Employer Satisfaction Survey for the past three years — and the vision outlined by the Accord will help to address our supply versus demand challenges, ensuring engineering education is better positioned for the future.
But there’s always room for improvement. In response to the report, Engineers Australia outlined some ways to strengthen the sector for our immediate and long-term prospects as a country.
Building our engineering workforce
To address the supply and demand challenges, various estimates state there needs to be as many as 100,000 more engineers in the workforce over the next 10 years. We believe this should include an additional 60,000 engineering graduates over the next 10 years, given typically half of engineering graduates end up working in non-engineering roles.
Because Australia trains the second-lowest proportion of engineers in the OECD at only 8 per cent of our graduates, and because there are significant challenges with our skilled migration system for engineers — only around half the qualified engineers coming to Australia as skilled migrants can find engineering work — a priority focus needs to be on training more engineers at Australian universities to ensure we have the future pipeline of engineers that we need.
More Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs) for engineering students will be required, however this won’t be sufficient. We also need to generate the demand from young Australians for engineering qualifications, through strategies such as outreach programs to attract under-represented groups, conducting better workforce planning and ensuring those demand signals are fed back to universities and schools so Australians can make informed choices about the qualifications they undertake.
We can also help achieve the target through reducing engineering students’ drop-out rates through better support, and more inclusive learning environments (particularly for women), as well as more work-integrated-learning opportunities including internships.
We can also help to achieve the target through reducing engineering students’ drop-out rates through better support, more inclusive learning environments — particularly for women — and more work-integrated-learning opportunities, including internships.
But what I’m hearing in conversations with industry is that they also need more experienced engineers.
While setting a graduate target quantifies our engineering education needs, we also need to consider targets for retaining experienced engineers in the workforce, incentives for bringing qualified engineers back into the workforce and initiatives for addressing the poor employment outcomes for overseas-born engineers who come to Australia under the skilled migration program.
Boosting the number of engineers in our workforce should be an urgent priority but it is unlikely to be sufficient for meeting the wide range of priorities facing Australia. As the prevalence and sophistication of technology increases, our business models will be challenged. The use of AI and other innovations will almost certainly play an important role in boosting productivity and our collective ability to deliver on the most important and urgent challenges we face.
A shared responsibility
No sector or stakeholder group can solve our complex and multifaceted national challenges alone. If we pool our resources to establish a shared understanding of what we’re trying to achieve, and coordinate our efforts, we’ll have a greater chance of success.
One area that needs our attention is establishing better links between industry, the university sector and peak bodies such as Engineers Australia, which will help us achieve effective information flows between the education sector and industry to help ensure the engineering curriculum strikes the right balance between discipline-specific and job-relevant knowledge.
Incentivising employer-paid placements (internships), increasing financial support for students, and funding to scale up engineering outreach programs targeting young childrens’ education are just some of the ways we can boost these connections.
Accredited and alternative pathways
The work of engineers has clear implications for public and worker safety, and can also have important implications for the economy through the optimal performance (or otherwise) of engineered systems.
Engineers therefore have a responsibility and obligation to the community, and end clients and users of engineering systems, to ensure our work meets standards and community expectations.
Accreditation is one of the most effective and efficient ways to ensure those who undertake engineering education meet the learning outcomes and standards required to live up to these expectations.
Because our accreditation standards are aligned to international accreditation standards, accreditation ensures qualified engineers meet these standards both locally and internationally – allowing for greater mobility for engineers between countries.
If we want a dynamic, international flow of engineers to smooth out supply and demand imbalances, and encourage the transfer of knowledge and innovation across countries, we need engineers to meet the same international accreditation standards for engineering education across the board. This will allow Australia’s engineers to be recognised in other countries and vice versa.
These are the reasons why international accreditation aligned with international standards works so well, and why it is so important to help us meet our national priorities now and into the future.
However, there is also a conversation around alternative pathways to the profession and how people who may not follow the more traditional routes to engineering can be certified. This is a conversation Engineers Australia is having with a range of stakeholders.
The focus is on striking the right balance between inclusivity and flexibility, and upholding professional standards in the interests of the community.
“Nothing would make me happier than a ‘Matildas moment’ for engineering.” Watch Jane MacMaster join other industry leaders to discuss the state of Australia’s engineering workforce crisis.