While ups and downs in the economy can affect immediate demand for skilled workers, Australia has an enduring shortage of engineers that requires a systemic solution.
Skills shortages in a range of industries will come under scrutiny at the Jobs and Skills Summit convened by the Australian Government this week, and a new Engineers Australia report shows that addressing future and current challenges in the supply of engineers will be vital to the nation’s economic success.
“The immediate cause of the shortages is an increase in demand for engineering skills at a time when international border closures have hindered skilled migrants arriving in Australia,” says the report, which is titled Strengthening the Engineering Workforce in Australia.
“However, research indicates the issue is much larger than the immediate cause of the reported shortages.”
Groundbreaking skills research
Engineers Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO HonFIEAust tells create the report is the culmination of groundbreaking research commissioned by Engineers Australia with a critical analysis of Australia’s engineering supply and demand dynamics.
“Our economy and society are more reliant on the engineering profession than ever before,” says Madew. “We need to ensure we have the engineers necessary to deliver on current government priorities and conceptualise the solutions needed to solve our society’s most complex problems.”
Engineers Australia Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng tells create the report was inspired by industry concerns.
“Around last year, I began noticing a pattern in the conversations I was having with senior engineering executives,” she says. “It was all about skills. They were saying, ‘What’s keeping me awake is I can’t find the people to do the work that we need to do.’”
Over the following 12 months, Engineers Australia investigated Australia’s skills landscape, as well as the supply and demand challenges facing the nation.
“It shouldn’t be surprising really to any of us that we’re facing a skills shortage across the broader economy,” MacMaster says. “We’ve got older Australians — the baby boomers, a large part of our population — entering into retirement age, and it’s particularly exacerbated for engineering and technology because the pace of change of technological advancement is increasing and it’s becoming more pervasive.
“There’s almost no aspect of our daily lives where technology isn’t prevalent, and the material and sophistication of that technology is increasing. The reliance on the engineering profession is increasing in step with that.”
MacMaster also points to a growing number of national priorities as another source of the problem, from sovereign manufacturing capabilities to nascent areas such as nuclear-powered submarines and the civil space sector.
“All these national priorities absolutely rely on the engineering profession, so the demand is increasing at a time when supply is decreasing,” she says.
“The whole economy is crying out for resources. We’ve got all sectors of engineering experiencing a skills shortage except for biomedical engineering — that’s the only discipline or area of practice that we’re hearing about that’s in oversupply. All other sectors and fields of engineering we are hearing about are experiencing quite a severe shortage.”
Not a new problem
Madew says the problem has deep roots.
“Our research shows that for decades, this issue keeps cropping up: there is a systemic shortage of engineers in Australia,” she says.
Temporary economic conditions affect the market for engineers, such as:
- demand stoked by climate change adaptation
- COVID-19 pandemic-related stimulus spending
- sovereign risk-derived onshoring.
However, longer-term and enduring solutions are also necessary.
Don Moloney, Defence Project Director at management consultancy Coras says the defence industry is one sector affected by these engineering skills shortages.
“As a nation we have a strategic need to build a stronger pipeline of STEM skills, STEM teaching, provide attractive careers in the defence sector, and increase these resources nationwide,” he tells create.
“A career as a defence engineer contributes to the safety, security and prosperity of our region and we should be inspiring potential engineers to that mission,” he says.
That inspiration, for Moloney’s sector and others, will involve encouraging more Australians to enter engineering fields, ensuring Australians trained in those fields continue to work in engineering after training, and ensuring the nation can make the best use of skilled migrants.
According to a prediction by the National Skills Commission, the number of people working in STEM occupations will increase by 12.9 per cent over the next five years.
“We are seeing commencements and graduations in engineering continue to decline — they’ve been declining since 2014,” says Madew.
“We need to make sure that we’ve got an adequate supply of engineers coming through our pipeline — domestically trained — who are getting the experience that then puts them into the demand categories when these cycles come along.”
What about migrant engineers?
While the nation’s skills shortages have been exacerbated by border closures during the pandemic, opening back up to overseas engineers will not solve the problem by itself.
“Migrants will always play a very important role in the Australian economy and in engineering,” Madew says.
“The challenge with relying on migration in the longer term — or even in the shorter term — is that we’re not the only country experiencing this shortage.
“The US, the UK, as two very similar countries to us, are both experiencing a shortage of engineers as well. Our reliance on migrant engineers is not going to change in the short to medium term, but we need to look at it as bolstering our domestic supply as well to shore us up in the future.”
It is also important, Madew says, to ensure that the migrant engineers who are here are able to actually work as engineers.
“There is a cohort of migrant engineers in Australia that are qualified, experienced engineers who are underemployed or unemployed. They cannot get a position that really aligns to the qualifications and experience that they’ve had back home,” she says.
Moloney says migrant engineers are rejoining the workforce as lockdowns end, but this solution does not affect all sectors equally.
“This relief to the local jobs market may not be seen in the defence sector due to the difficulty for non-citizens to achieve an Australian Government security clearance,” he says.
“The strain on the engineering workforce is being felt across all domains of defence and the defence industry. Key roles sit vacant for months, delaying work and increasing risk to capability, as well as putting additional, unsustainable pressure on the remaining workforce.”
The mismatch between skills and employment also exists for locally trained engineers.
“We know that a lot of engineers — somewhere around 35 per cent of engineers — don’t enter the engineering profession,” Madew says. “They graduate with an engineering qualification, but then they move on to another area.
“So how can we better support those engineers? How do we support parents and carers returning to work and those returning to the engineering profession after they’ve taken leave?”
Madew advises a broad-based response to the problem.
“The longer-term solution to resolving these challenges involves investment in young people and schools, industry-led development of early career graduates, a greater recognition of the value of migrant engineers and community-wide awareness of the engineering profession,” she says.
Women in engineering
Women similarly hold much potential for giving certainty to the future supply of engineers. The report notes that while engineering is the biggest employer of the STEM professions, it has the smallest female representation.
Previous Engineers Australia research has identified this problem and explored ways to boost the number of women and girls who study engineering and then go on to make it a career.
“Of all the women we surveyed who didn’t choose to study engineering, 90 per cent of them said that they didn’t even consider engineering or barely considered engineering,” says MacMaster.
“That’s a really high proportion, which is somewhat alarming. But it’s also an opportunity, because the single most commonly cited reason for not considering engineering was a lack of awareness of what engineering is and what engineers do.”
MacMaster says it is vital to increase awareness of engineering as a career among students, as well as among the parents and teachers who influence them.
“That will be the focus as we transition from the first phase of our work, which is understanding the problem and the factors that influence our engineering workforce,” she says. “And now we’re transitioning into the second phase, which is prioritising those factors and developing initiatives to address them and alleviate the skill shortage.”
Spreading the word
Madew believes Engineers Australia can respond to these problems through greater advocacy of engineering as a desirable profession among the broader community.
She says there are roles for government and industry as well, particularly in ensuring long-term demand matches supply.
“We don’t want to see an issue where we overcome the skills shortage, but then there are engineering graduates coming out each year who can’t get work because the work isn’t available” she says. “We need to look at how government, Engineers Australia, industry and others can work together to better forecast demand.”
MacMaster believes it is important to act immediately.
“I do feel that the problem’s going to get worse before it gets better, and the sooner we act, the sooner we’ll start alleviating the skills challenge,” she says.
“Engineers Australia will continue to be conveners of the key stakeholders including government, the tertiary sector, industry and professional associations required to solve this complex problem,” Madew says.
Read the full Strengthening the Engineering Workforce report
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