Engineers Australia asked the government to come to the table with funding to strengthen the engineering workforce. Here’s a look at our skills-development gains in the 2023 Federal Budget, and where we need to focus in the future.
There is a rising demand for engineers across all sectors of the Australian economy.
Engineering graduates topped the 2022 Employer Satisfaction Survey for the third year running, significantly leading graduates from other fields such as natural and physical sciences, architecture and building, health, management and commerce, society and culture, and creative arts.
Certain engineering fields are also rising in prominence. For example, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2023 report revealed that demand for system engineers has exploded both domestically and globally due to the greater level of complexity and interconnectedness in engineered systems.
But Australia is experiencing a significant engineering shortage.
With our current and future national priorities heavily reliant on engineering skills – including the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) partnership, clean energy transition and delivering the infrastructure pipeline – this is something that must be urgently addressed.
In this year’s Federal Budget, delivered on 9 May, the government recognised just how important engineers are to delivering these initiatives through a substantial investment in addressing workforce shortages and increasing STEM capability.
A local approach
Developing the local engineering pipeline begins with encouraging more young Australians to study engineering. The Budget outlined an additional $3.7 billion investment in skills, for a five-year national skills agreement to be negotiated with the states and territories helping to reform the vocational education sector as part of the longer-term plan to address the country’s skills shortages.
A greater emphasis on STEM in schools – with a particular focus on what engineers do and the role they play in society, along with lifting the standards of maths education and the numbers of students studying maths – is where we should be placing our attention.
According to the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, Australia’s maths ranking was 13th in 2003 and 30th in 2018 – a sharp decline within a 15-year period. Data released by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute also revealed that the number of students studying intermediate and advanced level maths was also at an all-time low.
Key to improving the status quo is supporting and upskilling out-of-field maths teachers, who make up to 40% of the Australian maths education workforce for grades seven to nine. The government’s pledge to spend $9.3 million to attract, train and retain teachers is a great place to start.
When it comes to higher education, Engineers Australia called for increased financial support for engineering students to ensure they continue on with their degree.
We also asked for more internship and apprenticeship opportunities to provide students with visibility of engineering career pathways, and prevent graduates from moving away from the profession to pursue the well-trodden paths of banking, finance and management consultant roles.
Engineers Australia welcomes the government announcement of an extension to the Women in STEM Cadetships and Advanced Apprenticeships Program until June 2027. This will grant participants more time to complete their science, technology, engineering and maths qualification as they continue to make strides in their careers.
While retention is largely a matter for organisations, who should spearhead initiatives such as flexible working arrangements and mentorship programs, encouraging engineers to return to the profession could also be achieved through government-support for organisations such as STEM Returners.
Looking forward, another effective and efficient way to generate more engineers is potentially through Commonwealth supported places for science-degree graduates to undergo two-year engineering conversion masters degrees.
As both domestically and overseas-trained scientists can have lower employment outcomes compared to engineering graduates generally, in Australia, a pathway for graduates with a relevant degree is a win-win situation.
Improving the prospects of skilled migrants
In a post-pandemic resurgence, around 400,000 migrants are set to enter Australia this year, with students making up almost 50% of the intake. Engineers Australia applauds the government’s decision to reform the migration program, with reduced migration pressures making it easier for more skilled migrant engineers to enter Australia.
But with only half the amount of engineering migrants currently working in the profession, simply increasing the number of skilled engineers coming to Australia, is on its own not a sufficient response.
Rather, our skilled migration program must be optimised through support mechanisms to help engineers find work in their area of specialisation, such as Engineers Australia’s Global Engineering Talent (GET) program.
The 20 participants in the GET pilot program will undergo 6 weeks of education delivered by Engineers Australia, followed by a 12-week paid work placement, with the opportunity to secure a full time position. Participants will also receive a microcredential, along with developing local industry contacts and knowledge.
Given Australians tend to hire from our professional networks, it’s vital for skilled migrants to foster these connections to gain successful entry into the profession.
With the help of government support, Engineers Australia plans to scale the GET program to larger intakes to further strengthen the skilled migrant pipeline.
A new line of defence
The announcement of the AUKUS deal on 13 March 2023 positioned Australia as one of only 7 countries to operate nuclear-powered submarines. It also presents an opportunity for the nation to grow our engineering workforce like never before.
The complexity of nuclear engineering means it must be conducted in a safe and performance critical way, requiring a highly capable and professional workforce.
Many of the engineers needed for AUKUS will be mechanical and electrical engineers, who have undergone a series of stacked microcredentials or a postgraduate credential in nuclear engineering.
Structural and civil engineers are also required to build the industrial bases that support the land-based systems needed to support nuclear-powered submarines.
The spectrum of engineers will vary in qualifications and experience, ranging from technicians right through to chief engineers, who will be responsible for nuclear plants and submarines.
Since the initial announcement, the Nuclear Powered Submarine Task Force began workforce planning to facilitate four deployments of submarines in Australia in the late 2020s, the delivery of the first AUKUS-class submarine in the 2030s, and the first Australian-built AUKUS submarine in the 2040s.
The Taskforce is already consulting US and UK-based learning institutions about building Australia’s capability, with some Australian-based universities also offering nuclear-related qualifications – either in nuclear science, nuclear engineering, or related qualifications.
Engineers Australia welcomes the government’s four-year $127.3 million investment to fund a further 4,000 university or higher education places to meet the skills requirement of nuclear-powered submarines.
But there’s much more work to be done. Engineers Australia will continue to play an important role through establishing the standards, and importantly, the systems and culture needed to ensure these assets work safely and reliably.
We have also formed a Nuclear Engineering Area of Practice Working Group that convenes on a weekly basis. Through this consultation process, we are working on establishing a new area of practice, so engineers can become chartered in nuclear engineering.