This year, the government needs to invest in big ideas with a long-term vision to future-proof the country.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the past two years have been a time of change and uncertainty. Given ongoing challenges abroad and at home, it’s also a safe prediction that this is likely to remain the case for the next year or two. Long-term impacts of COVID-19, supply chain disruptions, talent shortages, natural disasters, global conflict … these are just some items on a growing list of problems needing solutions.
In the face of these challenges, now is the time for bold action and big investment in building the skills and capabilities to see us through, said Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans AM.
“Our big ideas must be engineering-based, alongside developing technologies that create new industries, jobs and businesses, and help engineer a better future for all,” she said.
As the Federal Government prepares its Federal Budget announcement for the next financial year, Engineers Australia, the peak body representing the profession, has called on lawmakers to consider engineers as key agents of change with the creativity, innovation, industriousness and expertise to help design a better future for the country.
“Engineers are trained to solve complex problems. They work with uncertainty effectively and think things through. They excel in risk management, design and systems thinking. All these skills are increasingly required to address the complex problems of our time,” said Engineers Australia Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng.
According to Engineers Australia, there are three areas in particular that demand attention:
- building sovereign capabilities
- taking action on climate change
- investing in future skills.
As it stands, current Federal Budget inclusions aren’t enough to deliver on these crucial components. In response, Engineers Australia tapped into the Australian engineering community to better understand pain points and areas for improvement. The result is a budget submission (which you can read in full here) that contains crucial recommendations and advice for the Federal Government on how to build long-term resilience through investment in engineering.
Build sovereign capabilities and create opportunities
The impacts of COVID-19, and more recent global challenges such as conflict in Europe, have highlighted vulnerabilities in Australia’s ability to sustain itself.
“We have seen the disruption to supply chains from the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine,” MacMaster said.
“And we know that Australia’s economic activity needs to be more innovative and leading edge in order to be competitive in the global market, so building sovereign capabilities is critical.”
This includes investing in defence and aerospace capabilities, as well as boosting the country’s renewable energy and battery storage to reduce reliance on foreign imports and meet growing demand. Onshore design and manufacturing of battery technology would invigorate local industry to the tune of 35,000 new jobs and $7.4 billion in economic value by 2030. Similarly, the solar panel industry is forecast to grow 20 per cent annually through 2030, and Australia will need to increase its solar power output from 20 GW to at least 300 GW to meet future demand.
The 2022-23 Federal Budget is an opportunity to position Australia as a powerhouse of engineering innovation and technological development. However, lack of investment has seen the country lag behind international counterparts in terms of commercialising innovations, according to Engineers Australia’s budget submission. The organisation has called on government to take more steps to foster collaboration between research institutions, academia and industry in order to stay competitive and ensure innovations make it to market.
This can be accomplished a few ways, according to Engineers Australia, including:
- centralising and streamlining the application process for research and development grants;
- creating more innovation hubs that co-locate academic institutions, industry bodies and research organisations;
- implementing a globally competitive tax regime to encourage investment in start-ups;
- encouraging Australian infrastructure innovation through targets for projects dedicated to practice improvement and development; and
- supporting Australian SMBs by requiring more partnerships between transnational corporations and smaller domestic firms.
Beating climate change
Another item that should be at the top of the agenda this budget cycle is climate action, according to Engineers Australia. Both the natural and built environments are under threat from climate change effects like the rising incidence of extreme weather events.
“Climate change is the most urgent and significant challenge we have ever faced and collective action at immense pace and scale is required to address it,” MacMaster said.
It’s a complex issue, but one place to start, according to Engineers Australia, is completing the country’s net-zero roadmap. Current targets are unambitious, and place Australia out of step with its international peers. The association advocates for a well-defined, comprehensive strategy as a crucial step to ensure governments, businesses and others work in concert to hit emissions reduction targets and increase sustainability.
Another piece of this puzzle is investment in energy-efficient technology solutions, which the government should incentivise in this upcoming budget. Engineers Australia also lists development of electric alternatives to fuel-based technologies as an area of focus. When combined with investment in more renewable energy sources, this could see emissions decline.
The association’s final recommendation for practical steps to combat climate change is implementing efficiency standards for vehicles on a ‘fleet average’ basis. This would see more hybrid and electric vehicles on Australian roads, while accommodating for higher-emitting models such as utes. Standards can be tightened in coming years as technology improves and recharging infrastructure becomes available.
Investing in future skills and capabilities
Engineering skills underpin our ability to address these two challenges – but a leaky engineering skills pipeline puts any efforts to future-proof the country at risk.
“Australia is experiencing a critical engineering skills supply challenge and we need to work with government, industry and the education sector to address it,” MacMaster said.
For this reason, Engineers Australia has included several recommendations in its 2022-2023 Federal Budget submission, starting with improving the retention of engineering graduates in the engineering workforce. Future demand for engineers will only continue to grow, and often international markets are tapped to meet skills gaps – currently 58.5 per cent of Australia’s engineering workforce comes from overseas. To ensure long-term resilience and meet future challenges, the Federal Government needs to invest as much in securing its future supply of engineers as it does in food or fuel.
Engineers Australia’s research shows a significant number of engineering graduates go on to careers in other professions. Investing in retaining and engaging graduates, and ensuring positive employment outcomes, can bridge this gap and contribute to a more robust talent pipeline. Engineers Australia also reports a gap between engineering curriculums and the needs of industry, which can be mitigated through closer ties between industry and academia.
While developing domestic talent pools is crucial, Engineers Australia acknowledges that migrant engineers do – and will continue to – make significant contributions to Australia’s long-term resilience. Opened borders combined with recent changes to the skilled worker assessment process means we are likely to see more international engineers applying for positions here. However, Engineers Australia stresses that the Federal Government needs to create more targeted migration programs to attract engineers with in-demand skills – rather than just assessing applicants based on qualifications. The organisation also calls on industry and government to work together to address the barriers to employment for skilled migrants once they are here.
Refocusing on positive engineering graduate outcomes and reforming migrant programs will help secure Australia’s engineering talent pipeline in the immediate future. However, to ensure we are creating future generations of thinkers, builders and innovators with the skills to solve real-world challenges, investment in STEM education is a must. This won’t be possible without stronger support for educators in science, technology, engineering and maths disciplines, said Engineers Australia in its budget recommendations. This includes additional training for teachers on what engineering ‘is’, as well as greater understanding of how to communicate engineering career prospects to students.
Advocating for engineers
Engineers are on the frontlines of solving Australia’s biggest challenges with nuanced, innovative and creative solutions. According to MacMaster, it’s time that the Federal Government looks to the profession as enablers of progress and key advisors.
However, that won’t happen without a push from the profession. In addition to sharing its budget recommendations, she advocates for all engineers to lend their voice and speak up for the changes they want to see.
“Participate in conversations where you think you can add value, and bring ideas for solutions and improvements to the table – not just criticism of how things are currently done,” MacMaster said.
“When engineers can demonstrate their value more often, our profession will be sought more often for our insight.”