It was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that Angela Durston-Ryan decided to pack up and leave her lifelong hometown of Melbourne.
Her partner at the time had already made the move north to Shepparton, and Durston-Ryan’s employer, the property and infrastructure consultant Spiire, was happy to transfer her to their office in the Goulburn Valley.
Ultimately, Durston-Ryan says, her relationship didn’t work out. The new town did though.
“The career opportunities that I had once I moved to Shepp were second to none, and I was like, ‘I’m going to stay, this is great here,’” she enthused.
“Everything you need is here in the region, with all the added bonuses: you don’t have traffic … You meet your neighbours, as well. Everyone is so lovely; you can afford a house.”
Durston-Ryan’s story is not an unusual one; the shift to remote work spurred by the pandemic has seen record numbers of Australians move to regional centres like Shepparton in northern Victoria.
And while STEM professionals are in high demand all over the country, the sudden population influx has led to a particular boom in opportunities for skilled engineers outside of the capital cities. Engineers Australia recently published a report on Strengthening the engineering workforce in Australia identifying shortages of skilled engineers in rural Australia.
According to Kim Houghton, Chief Economist at the Regional Australia Institute, the trend dates to the mining boom of the late ’00s and early ’10s but was greatly accelerated by the pandemic.
“The demand for labourers has fallen away, and we’ve seen this relentless growth in need for professions and trades,” he said.
“That tells us that regional employers are looking more and more for highly skilled and highly qualified people across the board really in the whole range of professions.”
According to Houghton, an increasing sophistication in regional labour markets has led to notable growth in certain sectors.
“Engineering is a key one, as are health professions, education professions and business professions,” he said.
“Low-skill jobs are still there, but the big growth has been in the higher skill jobs, so I think there is this maturing of many of our regional economies.
“Coupled with that, even though there’s been house-price growth, it is still about half the price of the capital cities in the regions. So, if you can land a secure job in a good professional context with half the housing cost, the whole lifestyle value package is starting off on a pretty good footing.”
Durston-Ryan is an avid proponent of the regional lifestyle, but she also says that part of the appeal of a town like Shepparton is the range of professional opportunities available.
“Now I am team lead of the engineering design team,” she said.
“I don’t know that I would get that opportunity [in Melbourne] at where I am in my career. Maybe later down the track I would have.”
It also means she is exposed to different types of engineering work.
“I’m also helping out with a lot of the other guys who are up and coming and stepping into that project management role or the design space or the construction space. I can help them a lot more from a day-to-day basis,” Durston-Ryan said.
“I’m learning more about the different terrain —Shepparton is a floodplain, so everything is very, very flat. That’s a different kind of engineering and you’re getting challenged engineering-wise. You’ve got to use pump stations, rising mains, all of that, and learn again different kinds of tools and teams.”
Working in a regional centre also permits her to form relationships with small, local suppliers, she said, which differ from the larger firms that can dominate in a big city.
The Australian Government’s 2022 Population Statement predicts that, although growth in net internal migration will abate in coming years, by the 2032-2033 year it will have risen again to 43,000.
Figures provided by the Regional Australia Institute show that there were 1716 engineer vacancies advertised in regional Australia in November 2022 — a 29 per cent increase on the past year and a 59 per cent increase on five years ago.
By comparison, there were 4611 engineer vacancies in the major metro areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
“The actual outright number will be higher in the capitals because that’s where 80 per cent of our population lives,” Houghton said.
“While in total terms, there’s still more jobs advertised in metro, the growth pattern is really diversified and you’re seeing that playing out in engineering as well. The growth pattern has been much stronger in regions for engineers than it has been in the capitals.”
No slowing down
Houghton believes the strong demand for engineers will not abate any time soon, particularly as rural industries such as agriculture become more professionalised and technical.
“We’ve got a pretty steady growth plan for our larger regional centres. They’re growing only at slightly lower rates in our capital cities. So that sort of population growth, again means increasingly sophisticated labour markets, and there’ll be more need for engineers across a range of disciplines as those cities grow as well,” he said.
“If you look at this trend over the last 10 years with this really steady increase in demand for professions across a range of fields in the regions, I think that’s going to continue. We’re only just seeing the start of that.
“So if you’re an engineer, even if you’re starting engineering, I think you’ve got very bright prospects of a range of different regional opportunities over the next 10 to 20 years. It looks like it’s a very fertile area of ongoing demand for some years to come.”
Durson-Ryan said she would enthusiastically recommend a move to the regions to any engineers thinking about a tree change.
“I feel like I’m a little bit of a country girl who was brought up in the city and always lived in the city,” she said.
“So come to Shepparton – but also, you’re almost guaranteed to find a great career opportunity wherever in the regions you go.”