The nation needs more engineers. As reported in Engineers Australia’s Strengthening the Engineering Workforce in Australia report, industry organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified engineers. So what are the factors that need to be considered when addressing a skills shortage?
“Our economy and society are more reliant on the engineering profession than ever before,” says Engineers Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO.
“We need to ensure we have the engineers necessary to deliver on current government priorities and conceptualise the solutions needed to solve our society’s most complex problems.
“Our research shows that for decades, this issue keeps cropping up: there is a systemic shortage of engineers in Australia,” she continues.
Australia’s engineering workforce has two main channels through which new talent enters the profession – Australians who qualify as engineers through tertiary education, and skilled migrant engineers. Both require attention from government and industry if the shortage of skilled engineers is to be addressed.
Primary and secondary education
The report highlights seven factors that influence students when choosing engineering as a career:
- Interest and early skills in maths, science and engineering principles and concepts, creativity, and curiosity.
- Community awareness of what engineering is and what engineers do.
- Sustained exposure and context given to engineering principles in the curriculum.
- Standards of maths education in Australia
- Number of students studying maths and science
- Awareness of what engineering is and the profession’s career opportunities – students, teachers, careers advisors and parents
- Awareness of what STEM means in practice
“The influence on students really does begin with early childhood education,” says Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng, Engineers Australia’s Chief Engineer.
“The research shows that girls in particular have made up their minds about what they’re good at quite early on, often in primary school,” she adds. “So secondary education is too late.”
Results in mathematics for Australian students have also seen a decline. As part of its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the OECD publishes performance tables for students around the world. In 2003, Australian students ranked tenth in the world for mathematics. However, in 2018, Australia ranked 30th, with their performance dipping below the OECD world average for the first time.
Vocational and higher education study
If the first category is encouraging young Australians to choose engineering, this category is about ensuring that they continue and complete their education.
“We are seeing commencements and graduations in engineering continue to decline — they’ve been declining since 2014,” says Madew.
“We need to make sure that we’ve got an adequate supply of engineers coming through our pipeline — domestically trained — who are getting the experience that then puts them into the demand categories when these cycles come along,” she says.
“Graduation rates have started to decline too,” says MacMaster. “Only around 50–60 per cent of students who commence an engineering degree graduate with one.”
MacMaster also points out that only around 25 per cent of students complete their degree in the minimum 4 years.
“We believe the main factor is that an engineering degree is fairly intensive in terms of contact hours, and there is a lot of assignment and exam work.”
Many students, says MacMaster, simply do not have the time to keep up with their studies while also supporting themselves with part-time employment. As a result, they tend to extend the time it takes to complete their degree.
Another problem that students face, says MacMaster, is that internships are hard to come by. These placements can often be a requirement to graduate, she says.
“In March this year we released our Internship Hub,” says MacMaster, “which provides a way to link internship opportunities in industry with university students.
“But of course, it’s also important that workplaces offer really positive experiences in these internships,” she continues, “so that students generate positive sentiment toward engineering and the profession and ideally stay in the profession.”
Engineering Technologists and Associates
MacMaster encourages those running engineering projects to consider the makeup of their teams.
“Associates and technologists have a different set of skills, and perhaps a different degree, but they’re just as important to the skill mix on engineering teams.”
Retention in the engineering workforce
Research shows that only around 60 per cent of qualified engineers work in an engineering role. MacMaster points out that that figure drops to 40 per cent for skilled migrant engineers.
“Engineering tends to be an ‘asset for life’,” she says. “It provides you with transferable skills which are very attractive to other industries.”
The Employer Satisfaction Survey (ESS) is a national survey that measures how well graduates from Australian higher education institutions meet employer needs. Engineering students regularly top the list for overall employer satisfaction.
“Our graduates are highly regarded in the workforce,” says MacMaster.
However, this translates into engineering graduates being targeted by non-engineering industries.
“A lot of engineering graduates, particularly the top performers, get enticed to work with non-engineering organisations in non-engineering roles, such as the banks and management consultancies,” says MacMaster.
Graduate programmes and internships have a role to play here, too.
“If people are in the engineering workforce before they’ve even graduated, they’re more likely to stay in the engineering workforce,” says MacMaster. “A structured programme right after graduation also helps engineers move toward independent practice”
Finally, says MacMaster, there is the question of engineers returning from career breaks. The longer the career break, the greater the lack of confidence for those returning to the workforce.
“This appears to be a particular problem with women,” says MacMaster.
“We found in our Women in engineering research that female engineers are twice as likely to experience imposter syndrome than male engineers, or even women in other professions,” she explains.
“So we actively support a programme called STEM Returners, which has a high success rate in supporting engineers, particularly women, to come back into the workforce after a career break.”
Skilled migrant workforce participation
The last few years of closed borders and net-negative migration have caused a temporary but significant reduction in the number of migrant engineers able to work in Australia.
Fifty-eight percent of Australia’s engineering workforce was born overseas. But increasing the number of engineers migrating to Australia is not the simple solution that it appears to be. It is also important that qualified engineers migrating to Australia are supported to find the work that they are qualified to do.
“There is a cohort of migrant engineers in Australia that are qualified, experienced engineers who are underemployed or unemployed,” says Madew. “They cannot get a position that really aligns to the qualifications and experience that they’ve had back home.”
At the moment, only around 40 per cent of skilled migrant engineers in Australia actually work in the industry.
MacMaster mentions that migrant engineers face a number of barriers to joining the industry:
- A perceived lack of local knowledge
- Cultural differences
- The complexity associated with the visa system
- A lack of local referees
- Queries about their qualifications
- ‘Flight risk’ concerns
- Tendency to hire from ‘networks’ at senior-level roles
MacMaster describes a programme in planning at Engineers Australia which will meet some of these concerns.
“We want to be able to provide better guidance for employers around qualification equivalencies and how to navigate the visa systems. For skilled migrants we are seeking to establish networking and internship opportunities, and a programme to help migrant engineers quickly get up to speed on local standards.”
“Migrants will always play a very important role in the Australian economy and in engineering,” says Madew.
“The challenge with relying on migration in the longer term — or even in the shorter term — is that we’re not the only country experiencing this shortage.
“The US and the UK, as two very similar countries to us, are both experiencing a shortage of engineers as well. Our reliance on migrant engineers is not going to change in the short to medium term, but we need to look at it as bolstering our domestic supply as well to shore us up in the future.”
Some sectors of industry, says MacMaster, are working to understand what their needs will be in years to come.
“They’re already thinking about their future workforce, in terms of what capabilities they’ll need,” she says.
“But there is room for improvement, and we need to do it across the board.”
Madew and MacMaster agree that there are roles for government, higher education and industry in ensuring long-term demand matches supply.
“We don’t want to see an issue where we overcome the skills shortage, but then there are engineering graduates coming out each year who can’t get work because the work isn’t available,” says Madew.
“We need to look at how government, Engineers Australia, industry and others can work together to better forecast demand.”
Resolving the engineering workforce challenges and pursuing the opportunities requires collaboration between all levels of government, industry, the tertiary education sector, and professional associations. The time for action is now.
To read more about Engineers Australia’s proposals and initiatives, download the Strengthening the engineering workforce in Australia report.
Join Jane MacMaster and industry L&D leaders for Engineers Australia’s free webinar Tackling the graduate engineer shortage – approaches and strategies on 20 October.
Good article, one thing i can share that i was unable to find work after I graduated in 2016 from Curtin University in Perth, WA for 2 yrs. Definitely needs to manage demand forecasting better.
I totally agree with the article; specifically with respect to the employment rates of Associates like Technologists and Technicians and with respect to the employment rates of foreign-educated engineering associates being selected for senior positions because of nepotism, racism, preconceived ideas about foreigners and the “boys club”.
There are many of us who would return to working in the engineering sector if given the opportunity and the relevant respect (recognition of our skills and qualifications) but we have found it easier to find meaningful employment within other industry fields.
The bureau of statistics should have the breakdown of how many foreign-born, non-English, engineers, associates and trades people there are in Australia.
A solution would be for federal, state and local government and quasi government services contacts, that require employment, to include include employment quotas (expand the existing diversity employment quotas to include specific quotas for foreign-born and LGBTQI+ employees, not just quotas for female and Aboriginal employees). And, for their purchasing policies to include preferential purchases of goods from suppliers that meet these additional minimum diversity employment quotas for products “made in Australia”.
As for employing BEng engineers and licensed trades people only as opposed to employing associates like technologists and technicians as well, in my opinion will take a structural change – employers need to make up their minds about what they actually want. Employers need to justify the long-term requirement for technicians and technologists and stick to it this time around. Government needs to recreate the appropriate education institutes, qualifications, the legal frameworks (responsibilities and sign-offs, etc) and the insurance industry needs to provide the relevant liability insurances, etc, as per this industry requirement. All this did once exist but has been done away with over the past three decades in a process of “simplification”, cost cutting and a general lack of understanding by politicians, government purchasing departments and some employers about the functions of Associates like Technologists and Technicians within the engineering sector.
The IEAust might also have played a part in this plight of Associates, for not highlighting the problem to employers, legislators, government departments (like the tertiary education sector and the procurement and contracts sections) in time. Associates only relatively recently got a voting right within the IEAust; to late, it was after the dismantling of the regulatory structures, educational infrastructure and employment opportunities for engineering associates had progressed to the point where Institutes of Technology have been converted to universities offering BEng degrees only amongst other losses. The fact that TAFEs have been gutted is a whole different debate.
Monopolistic practices are also to blame. Trades people and their unions have limited their licensing structures to exclude Associates. Likewise, the IEAust, has, in the past, only stood up for the interests of BEng Engineers and promoted registration legislation that also excluded Associates. Whilst, the IEAust has made changes and become inclusive of Associates (and has been supportive of foreign educated people for a much longer time), the trades structures need to be nationalised (federal legislation needs to be introduced to override state anomalies) and be made to include Associates as well. Or, a totally separate structure needs to be set up for Technicians and Technologists.
So, with all these exclusive structures within the engineering sector, how are Associates supposed to earn a crust, be taken seriously or recognised or valued? And, then add to that the fact that you are a “foreigner” …
I think in Australia, the Engineers are not up there with doctors and lawyers or even accountants in social status. I hear that in places like Germany, India and some other countries engineers are held in high esteem. So, we can do something about uplifting the status of engineering
In Australian society. I think Engineers Australia has a big role to play here.
The obsession with cost cutting for 30 plus years without supporting minimum standards has de-engineered Australian systems [eg electricity grids, flood resilience, manufacturing] and outsourced all the engineering skill to overseas suppliers – until Covid hit.
If we aren’t smart enough to take advantage of the many extraordinarily well-trained overseas engineers for engineering jobs, perhaps, instead of being overqualified taxi and Uber drivers, these engineers:
a) could be redeployed as maths & science teachers for which there is an urgent and desperate need (& maybe the teaching diploma requirement could be reviewed for temporary positions or allow them to teach while undertaking paid parallel study) and
b) could be the cohort to re-introduce engineers into the advisory & decision-making structures of government. All the spreadsheets of infrastructure assets for advising Treasury are of no use if the skills to interpret them are not in place.
As we have seen with the numerous debacles of defence and national infrastructure, strategic resilience is not easily measured in simple financial terms eg without good water, sewer & stormwater drainage infrastructure, we are unlikely to have a good medical system in an emergency.
Australian has been de-engineered! I totally agree. the science lobby is way in front.
Good article, Skilled Migration to Australia’s main limitation is the age limit very hard to migrate to Australia after 45. while county such as New Zealand allows up to 55 & UK allow upto 65. Further getting the first job in Australia is very hard for migrants so Engineers Australia should help migrant Engineers overcome this kind of issue by forming an advisory voluntary group or team. So the age limit should be reconsidered until the skills shortage is solved.
I graduated from TAFE NSW SWI in 2007 with an Advance Diploma in Electrical Engineering. During my studies I was on a student VISA. During that time I have already been actively applying for jobs and yes I do agree at that point of time as a fresh graduate and don’t have the relevant visa and experience to work in Australia and I can’t get a job. I was lucky enough to get an employment through 457 visa by an employer introduced by a relative where I was being employed as a sheet metal ducted worker with electrical and HVAC skills which I have obtained through work experience overseas. Moving on my employer had to retrench me due to the economy crisis back in 2008 and I came back to Malaysia in 2009 November and i started my own engineering business in 2010 designing electrical substations, power plants, LV/HV circuits and even HVAC ducted systems. I managed to obtain my Australian permanent residency status in 2015 and I have been trying since to apply for a job as an electrical engineer again. Throughout the years of applying for a job I went for a skill assessment with department of industry NSW and i manage to obtain my electrotechnology – electrician craft certificate in 2017 and still I couldn’t get a job and i came back to Malaysia again and continue with by business. During my time in Malaysia, with the abundance work experience which I have gained through the construction industry, I applied for Chartered with Engineers Australia and after an interview, I have been granted my Chartered status in the practice of Project Management and Electrical Engineering in 2019 which makes me Chartered in 2 skills and till today January 2023 I’m still applying (LOL) for an Engineering job in Australia so that I could move back to Australia and live permanently. I started applying from a junior position (2015) till a senior level position (2023).
I really hope those online job application advertisement which are being put up there are genuinely hiring and not for the sake of fulfilling a job KPI.