Engineers Australia’s 2023 Budget submission highlights why now is the time to empower engineers to improve our systems, economy and climate response.
Technology, systems, products and services underpin our economy, with engineers firmly at the heart of all of those facets.
However, Australia is currently facing a significant engineering shortage across most disciplines and sectors, which will likely persist well into the future unless swift action is taken.
Weaving through our 2023 Budget recommendations is the need to bolster the engineering profession by addressing this skills shortage, as well as ensuring we have the competency to live up to our important role in society through registration and professional standards.
Only then can we set out to achieve the monumental tasks of addressing climate change, transitioning our energy systems and pursuing innovation.
Here is an outline of EA’s top interlinked Budget asks.
1. Building engineering skills for the future
Every sector of the economy will be held back unless we strengthen the engineering workforce. Yet, as things stand, we need at least 50,000 more engineers than we currently have.
There are several reasons why the pool of engineers from our two skills sources – migrants and locally trained engineers – is shrinking.
When it comes to our skilled migrant workforce, not only is the visa system difficult to navigate, it is also exceedingly difficult for skilled migrant engineers to find work as engineers when they arrive in Australia.
First and foremost, we need to better connect industry and migrants so this skilled workforce is not wasting its talents in other areas. This could be achieved through government support for upscaling the Engineers Australia Global Engineering Talent program, which seeks to provide services such as local networking, CV writing for the Australian context workshops and internships, among other things, to skilled migrant engineers.
Locally speaking, we don’t train nearly enough engineers to meet demand, with Australia currently ranking second last among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of the number of engineers we produce per capita.
Our research shows this is primarily due to a lack of awareness in the broader community about what engineering is, what engineers do and how our profession positively contributes to the world.
The standard of maths education in Australia also seems to be declining if we look at the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results. This program tests school students around the world every five years. In 2003 Australia ranked tenth in mathematics performance and in 2018 we ranked thirtieth.
The numbers of students studying engineering related subjects also warrants attention. Physics and engineering studies are not offered in many girls’ schools and numbers of students studying intermediate and advanced level mathematics is at an all-time low – leading to insufficient numbers of engineers coming through Australian universities.
Having adequate numbers of teachers and support for teachers is important. Many ideas could be considered including funding for programs to train and upskill mid-career STEM professionals to become maths, science or engineering studies teachers.
To ensure those who do pursue an engineering degree complete their studies or finish in the minimum four-year timeframe, EA is calling for increased financial support to provide students with financial support, along with Commonwealth Supported Places for Masters degrees in engineering that people with cognate qualifications could complete in order to become Professional Engineers.
2. Establishing a nationally consistent registration scheme
Queensland has required registration of Professional Engineers for nearly 100 years, and registration schemes in other states and territories are just starting to emerge.
While this is a step in the right direction, different systems for the registration of engineers can lead to greater administrative and cost burdens for organisations, slowing down productivity and increasing costs across the board.
While this is a step in the right direction (clients and consumers of engineering work need to be able to have confidence that the people doing the work are qualified and competent), different systems for the registration of engineers across the country can lead to greater administrative and cost burdens for organisations, slowing down productivity and increasing costs.
An engineering firm might be based in Victoria, for example, but its engineers may work in different parts of Australia. Therefore, to make it easier for engineers to do their work – irrespective of where that may be – consistency in registration schemes across states and territories is imperative.
The schemes should also encompass all areas of the profession to ensure engineers have the required competency to do so.
While the word ‘engineer’ remains unrestricted, anyone can label themselves as much, which introduces elements of risk.
3. Supporting engineering-led climate action
There are six key areas the government must address to boost engineering-led climate action, as identified by EA’s recent Climate Change Position Statement.
This includes building the principles of near-zero emissions, climate resilience and circular economy into policy and regulations, along with the standards and technical specifications of our work.
Second, we need to develop a standardised means of calculating the emissions footprint of engineering works across the whole project and product lifecycle.
A way to factor external costs, including emissions, into product design, use, maintenance and project feasibility assessments also needs to be established so that we understand the expected impact on our systems in a holistic way.
Of paramount importance, however, is the ability to assess how vulnerable existing engineering systems, such as buildings, bridges, roads and infrastructure are to a changing climate and extreme weather events.
This will help us to rebuild or build design-resilient engineered systems into the future, which we aren’t currently equipped to do.
Underpinning all of these necessary steps is the need for the education of our engineering professionals on climate-related ideas, equipping us with the tools to be more effective and influential on climate change.
The equally important next step is setting the context through the design of procurement and government policies, allowing engineers to embed climate change and circular economy principles in our work.
All climate change-related challenges or opportunities involve technology, so engineers need to be involved in every step of the process, from planning through to decommissioning and the circular economy.
4. Ensuring a reliable energy transition
Many of our energy systems operate via ageing legacy infrastructure. That means we are now faced with the enormous challenge of rapidly integrating renewable energy systems into our existing structures at an unprecedented pace and scale in order to meet our energy, climate and emissions targets.
Engineers at all levels are needed to make this energy transition process as smooth as possible; from the innovator level looking at new technologies, right up to the system level working with governments and regulators.
This requires the government to drive a multi-stakeholder and whole-of-system approach that both envisions the final energy system, as well as details the various steps along the way. AEMO has made a very positive start at this through their Roadmap to 100% Renewables and the NEM Engineering Framework and further government support for these important pieces of work is critical.
To ensure engineers are up to the systems-transition task, we also need funding to train and up-skill those who currently work in industries that are likely to be phased out.
5. Strengthening innovation and industry
If Australia fails to nurture, attract and retain top entrepreneurial talent, we will continue to fall behind in innovation.
To improve the current state of affairs, we need to reduce the administrative and bureaucratic burden of complying with engineering grant funding schemes. This is typically higher for STEM start-ups due to licensing and compliance requirements.
In order to compete on a global scale, we also need increased investment in innovation hubs across Australia, centred around start-ups and the commercialisation of our innovations.
When it comes to improving and supporting industry, government support to assist in the adoption of digital technologies such as digital twins and smart sensors will strengthen our assets, in turn enhancing productivity in delivery, operation, maintenance and decommissioning.
Utilising this technology to our advantage would be accelerated if the workforce’s digital skills are current and relevant. Support for programs to promote collaboration between industry and academia to support the integration of current and emerging technologies would also assist.
The strength of Australia’s current and future engineering workforce is a critical enabler for most of our national priorities including our climate change objectives. The responsibility for ensuring our workforce is sufficient in scale and capability to meet these challenges is a responsibility for many stakeholders including Government and we look forward to our continued work on this front with government at all levels.
Climate Smart Engineering 2023 (CSE23) will be held 29-30 November 2023 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Call for abstracts and registrations are now open.
Abstract submissions close 11.59 pm AEST on Wednesday 12 April 2023.