During a federal election campaign there is no shortage of major policy issues ripe for discussion. Several were outlined and analysed during the Engineers Australia Commonwealth Election Forum.
Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson didn’t mince words when discussing the urgency of the geopolitical and national security challenges we’re facing right now.
“The challenges that face us internally are massive, the external challenges are even greater. This election is taking place at a time when the nation is in the greatest danger it’s ever been in,” he said, during this week’s Engineers Australia Commonwealth Election Forum webinar.
“If the rules-based, liberal international order breaks down, and it is in danger of doing so, discussions of climate change will become largely irrelevant,” he said.
Not that climate change is irrelevant. In fact, it’s a reason why the rules-based system must be defended, Anderson said. Integrity must be restored to the public debate around the climate change discussion, and other issues of similar national importance outlined by Engineers Australia’s Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng.
Of those issues, climate change is number one, she said. It’s an enormously complex policy discussion that ranges from coordinated planning across sectors, to how we encourage emissions reduction with a goal of net-zero across individual sectors including transport and energy, and to new educational transition pathways for people who work in industries that are being phased out.
“We should be talking about some principles of policy development that should be considered as part of our climate change suite of actions and initiatives,” MacMaster said.
These should include “showing environmental integrity, promoting investor certainty, minimising detrimental economic impact, supporting national innovation and ensuring flexibility and equity in terms of burden sharing and opportunity creation”.
What does all of this mean on a practical level?
The right people with the right knowledge
Engineers Australia has been consulting widely in recent months, MacMaster said, on what must be prioritised to enable engineers to be impactful and influential on climate change challenges. The main message coming through is around education.
“Of course, the government has articulated other national priorities, such as modern manufacturing, strengthening supply chain resilience and reliability, nuclear-powered submarines, aspirations for a civil space industry, and many others. I think greater vision and coordinated planning of these wouldn’t go astray.”
But underpinning all of this, and guaranteeing sovereign capability, she said, is the nation’s workforce.
“Our economy is crying out for the right people in numerous sectors, from hospitality to teaching and from health to engineering,” said MacMaster. “Demand for people in STEM-related occupations is particularly high after growth of 85% since the early 2000s.”
Projections show demand for such occupations will continue to grow by almost 13% over the next five years, so investing in talent must be a number-one priority, MacMaster said.
“Demand for engineers is especially high at the moment, driven by a post pandemic recovery and a healthy infrastructure pipeline, a focus on innovation and technology more broadly,” she said.
Estimates of around 40,000 extra engineers being required by 2025 – just three years from now – are sobering. That’s just in the field of infrastructure. The COVID-induced talent squeeze in Australian engineering, which has always relied on skilled migrants to fill vital roles (over 58% of engineers working in Australia were born overseas, MacMaster said), is being felt equally in nuclear engineering, defence systems engineering, construction, power systems, rail, structural and many other engineering fields.
Should we fail to find a solution for this challenge, one that involves engaging more school students in STEM subjects and funnelling greater numbers of more diverse school leavers into engineering degrees, we’ll see greater project delays and cost blowouts.
“As the UK has seen from the engineering workforce shortage, we’re going to see detrimental impacts on project performance and we’re going to see a loss of the competitiveness of the Australian economy in the global context,” she said.
Encouraging the right conversation
Powerful policy comes from brave public discussions. Such discussions simply aren’t taking place in today’s political and social environment, Anderson said. “As a people, there’s no common narrative. And so, the problem our political leaders now have is if they take a definitive position on anything, they get shot to pieces.”
Liberal, Labor, Green or independent, a coherent set of policies cannot be agreed on because somebody will always be upset.
This is one of the reasons he appreciates engineers, Anderson said. They tend to be practical people who look for solutions rather than problems. They look for discussion rather than disagreement. They recognise that some truth must be established and agreed on before solutions can be devised.
“So, we need leadership,” he said. “But we also need a willingness to be a little more consensual.”
The last time we had a major public debate that resulted in significant policy change was over 20 years ago with the new tax system, he said. We’re now facing extremely serious issues that demand strong policy terms, but because people are so easily divided it’s almost impossible to have the necessary conversations.
So, what is the solution? Do we accept there is no hope? Absolutely not, Anderson said.
“I’ve got kids and grandkids, and I want them to be in the great place that I’ve experienced,” he said. “But we’ve got to be honest first and acknowledge what’s not going right.”
“We want [people] to be positive and to have plenty of fighting spirit and say, ‘There are challenges to be overcome, let’s get stuck into it. How do I become a first-class engineer? How do I become a scientist?’”
“We need crystal-clear leadership that re-engages a big slab of the Australian community and makes them feel that they’re being listened to, that they’re having a say over the best interests of their children.”
Leadership in engineering is vital, too.
“Skilled migration is obviously a big part of the answer,” Anderson said. “I think we need to have a very close look at this, we need real leadership, we need to focus very much on STEM, science, engineering, training and so forth.”
MacMaster agrees: “We need a national conversation and, quite frankly, a national initiative to address this entering-the-workforce challenge before the skills crisis worsens.”