Australian engineering job vacancies have hit a 10-year high, with pandemic border closures and a dearth of home-grown talent fuelling a skills shortage in the profession.
According to the latest Australian Engineering Employment Vacancies Report from Engineers Australia, the number of engineering jobs advertised increased 50 per cent in 2021. This was despite limited growth in the latter part of the year due to the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Queensland saw the biggest growth, with a 67 per cent increase in job listings, followed by New South Wales (54 per cent) and Victoria (44 per cent).
The report analysed vacancies data produced by the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business from July to December 2021. It found civil engineers were the most in demand during this period, corresponding with the Federal Government’s infrastructure push to stimulate the economy.
Industrial, mechanical and production engineers were also highly sought after, with ICT support and test engineers coming in third.
Demand for engineers has traditionally been cyclical because infrastructure investment increases lead to a shortage of civil engineers. But with Australia’s focus on initiatives such as the Modern Manufacturing Strategy, the need for engineers will only grow, said Engineers Australia’s Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng.
“There’s also a focus on innovation and technology more broadly,” she said. “We’re living in an age where there isn’t a realm of life that doesn’t rely on technology, and ultimately that relies on engineers.
“If we don’t do something to address this significant skills challenge, I think the impacts will be felt really hard across many sectors.”
This could include schedule delays to infrastructure projects and implications for Australia’s strategic priorities, such as a lack of talent to help grow sovereign supply chain capabilities.
With demand for engineers outstripping supply, Engineers Australia Policy Advisor Michael Bell said steps must be taken to stop the current skills shortage from becoming a long-term problem.
“If we don’t do anything, we’ll continuously have a shortage of engineers and it will start to turn into a structural shortage,” Bell said.
“The National Skills Commission has said the rate of jobs that require STEM subjects, of which engineering is a big one … is only going to increase. So we need to see more engineers coming through the pipeline to fulfil the demand.”
Adequate employment for migrant engineers
Overseas-born engineers typically make up about 60 per cent of the Australian engineering workforce. When the nation closed its borders in March 2020, this valuable pipeline was cut off.
While the reopening of international borders could provide a boost to the current workforce, a better solution is needed, Bell said. This includes providing greater support to the migrant engineers who are already in the country, but who have difficulty securing employment appropriate to their experience.
From surveying more than 800 migrant engineers and conducting in-depth interviews with employers and recruiters, a report from Engineers Australia found the biggest barriers to employment for migrant engineers were associated with “local” factors. Whether it was experience, networks, standards, references or qualifications, the top five obstacles identified by migrant engineers were all to do with not being locally trained.
“We already have a great pool of migrant talent. They’re qualified engineers, they often have very good experience in their home country, but that experience isn’t always recognised here,” Bell said.
“It’s a mindset change for industry to value the skills migrant engineers bring, such as different ways of thinking. At the end of the day, they’re engineers who have been trained to an international standard … and they meet the standard of what an engineer is in Australia.”
A lack of local engineering talent
While Australia will always need migrant engineers, it must also address the domestic talent pipeline. Currently, just 8.9 per cent of all Australian university graduates are engineers. This makes the nation one of the lowest producers of engineers as a proportion of all graduates in the OECD.
Focusing on STEM education to encourage more students to study engineering, and better support for those who do graduate, is vital, MacMaster said.
“We’re doing a lot of work across the whole pipeline of engineering skills supply, and it starts in primary school,” she said.
“It’s also about making sure that teachers, careers advisors, parents and kids know what engineering is … and the breadth of opportunities you have with a career in engineering.”
Industry-led programs to develop early career engineers could also help incentivise graduates to join — and remain in — the profession. This includes better internship opportunities for engineering students and graduate programs, which compete with those offered by financial institutions and consultancy firms.
“Engineers are creative problem solvers. We think very logically and analytically, but also creatively, so our skillset is valued in many other sectors,” MacMaster said.
“While it’s wonderful that engineers can work across the whole economy, in an era where engineering skills are in demand, it is worth considering how we retain engineers in the engineering workforce before they go off and work in other sectors.”