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.