Efforts are being made to encourage more young people to consider engineering as a profession, but how can we ensure that qualified people already working in the industry stay in the profession?
The recent report from Engineers Australia, Strengthening the engineering workforce in Australia, highlighted a potential gap in skilled engineers. One way to ensure we have enough engineers for the future, it suggested, was to encourage more students to choose STEM subjects, and to opt for engineering degrees at university.
But as was shown in our article on the inflows and outflows of engineers in the industry, many qualified engineers do not work in engineering roles. With engineering vacancies at a ten-year high, how can we encourage more engineers to stay in the profession?
“There are a number of areas we need to focus on,” says Romilly Madew AO, Engineers Australia CEO. “First, we need to highlight the importance of the impact of engineering, both on society and the economy.”
People often don’t appreciate the role that engineers play in everyday life, says Madew.
“In nearly every aspect of our lives, an engineer has been involved,” she continues. “When you turn on your computer, when you drive your car, when you turn the tap on – an engineer has made that possible.”
Improved pathways into engineering
Another focus, says Madew, is to ensure that we have flexible pathways for interested people to enter into engineering, and more importantly, progress in their career.
“Once we’ve done the hard work of encouraging more students to choose engineering, we need to ensure that they are entering into a more inclusive, flexible workplace,” Madew says.
“We have to develop new ways of working that are more welcoming to engineers who don’t necessarily fit in the old, established ways,” she continues.
The Strengthening the engineering workforce in Australia report makes several recommendations on this theme. It suggests possible future initiatives that offer incentives for engineers who remain in the workforce, and the development of a credential to recognise technical expertise.
Why do engineers leave the profession?
Engineers will always be engineers, says Madew, even if they’re not working directly in an engineering role.
“Engineers, because of the way they are taught to think, have an array of skills that is very attractive to other industries,” Madew explains.
“What we need to do is keep them engaged within the engineering profession,” she continues. “We should emphasise that even if they’re not working in an engineering role, they’re still engineers and we can still offer something to them.”
“We have a lot to learn from engineers who have retired or left the profession,” Madew says.
“The door is always open for engineers to return to working as an engineer – they have a lot of wisdom and skills that they can pass on to younger engineers.”
Returning from career breaks
Another way the profession can retain more engineers, says Madew, is by making it easier to return to work after a career break.
Engineers Australia already has initiatives in place to help engineers who want to return after a career break. Through STEM Returners it has advocated for targeted policies that encourage women and mature engineers to remain in, or return to, the engineering workforce.
“We partner with STEM Returners, and actively seek out those engineers that have taken a break from the profession for whatever reason, and get them back into the fold with employer support and training,” Madew says.
“But we must make sure they’re returning to a supportive workplace,” she continues. “Lots of people leave engineering for family reasons, so coming back and being expected to work full time doesn’t work for them – they need flexible arrangements.”
Creating a supportive workplace
Madew lists three ways that engineering workplaces can be improved, based on the draft Culture Standard for the Construction Industry:
- Time for life
Ensuring employee wellbeing must also be a focus for the engineering profession, says Madew.
“Mental health and wellbeing has to be taken seriously,” Madew says.
“Time for life” means ensuring that engineers can maintain a work-life balance. As Madew points out, engineers are often expected to work extra hours for no additional pay, including regularly being asked to work weekends.
“Contracts should cover any extra work, and ensure that people’s time is respected and protected,” she says.
“We need more flexible options too, that allow people to work to the schedules they want” she adds.
When it comes to diversity, Madew is firm. “This is crucial, in all the areas that we’ve talked about already,” she says. “If you don’t have an inclusive environment, you will find that people from all kinds of backgrounds will not feel welcome.
“And if people don’t feel welcome, they won’t stay. They’ll also tell others that they didn’t feel welcome.”
There are simple ways to foster a welcoming and inclusive work environment, says Madew.
“You’d be amazed at the number of places I’ve been where there aren’t even the most basic facilities for a diverse workforce,” she says. “Simply having spaces for mothers to breastfeed, or rooms for prayer, will significantly improve the experience for a large portion of the workforce.”
“Another simple thing would be to celebrate the diversity in your team,” Madew says.
“Pride Week, International Women’s Day, Reconciliation Week – there are numerous ways to recognise and celebrate the diversity in your organisation.”
Encouraging women to stay in the workforce
Many of these considerations affect women in particular, says Madew. But there are other considerations that are particular to female engineers.
According to the Australian Government’s STEM Equity Monitor, there is still a significant pay gap in STEM careers – more than $26,000 across all STEM professions.
There are mechanisms to detect pay gaps in your organisation, says Madew.
“There’s nothing stopping engineering organisations identifying and eliminating the gender pay gap – it’s a fast way to ensure that your female engineers will stick around.”
Engineers Australia’s Women in Engineering report identified a number of factors that affect women in the profession.
First, the good news. Female engineers are significantly more satisfied on average than women in other careers – and on par with women in health careers. And around 80 per cent of female engineers agree that they bring a unique perspective to their work.
However, two thirds of the women that left the profession did so because they felt they had limited career opportunities, or that they were harassed, bullied, or under-valued in their workplace. As the report states, this implies that women are not leaving the profession, they are leaving the workplace.
“Try as we might, we are struggling to encourage more women into engineering,” Madew says. “We might need to get tough, and consider targets.”
“There are so many opportunities in engineering,” Madew says. “When you look at how the world is changing, and what we’ll need for the future, we know that the pressure on engineers to deliver is only going to increase.”
“We have to take this seriously.”
To read more about what Engineers Australia is doing to improve the supply of engineers, download the Strengthening the engineering workforce in Australia report.