Australia’s infrastructure sector has long been challenged by barriers to innovation, as well as flaws in procurement processes and training. A new Engineers Australia policy discussions paper looks to address that.
As someone who has been working as an engineer for 30 years, Engineers Australia Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng has seen Australia’s manufacturing industry narrow — along with the number of local jobs.
“We had many more small manufacturing businesses and highly skilled workforces producing high precision components for complex technical systems. And we’ve lost a lot of that capability,” said MacMaster.
If there is a silver-lining from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it brought Australia’s diminishing manufacturing industry, and in turn our sovereign capability, into public and political debate. And one thing has become perfectly clear: the strength of Australia’s sovereign capability depends on Australians investing in local businesses and jobs.
The government is taking a step towards this. In its March budget announcement, the federal government increased the threshold for local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to participate in the procurement process of defence contracts from $200,000 to up to $500,000, a commitment that provides more opportunities for Australian engineers and the industry at large.
However, according to Engineers Australia, support for Australian SMEs needs to be broader than just defence if the nation is to keep jobs onshore across all industries, including manufacturing and infrastructure.
As part of its External Voice Project, Engineers Australia engaged with members and non-members, as well as industry and high level government representatives, to discuss the main challenges facing the infrastructure industry. The result? A policy discussions paper (which you can read in full here) that identifies nine areas for reform to support greater productivity within the infrastructure sector.
One of those areas includes reform of procurement and tender processes to support equal participation of SMEs across all industries, which allows them a chance to compete with multinationals.
“We need to provide more opportunities for Australian SMEs and the engineers employed by them if we are to remain competitive,” MacMaster said. “Otherwise we will start to lose our talent offshore and be less attractive for skilled migrants to come here.”
Tackling the education gap
Job opportunities and skilled employees are the backbone of a thriving economy, and they are what keeps the infrastructure industry competitive. However, as the discussions paper identifies, there is an engineering capability challenge.
According to MacMaster, university labs and tools need to keep pace with what is happening in industry.
But that can be easier said than done. For this reason, the Engineers Australia discussions paper recommends that government subsidise programs to promote collaboration between industry and academia, encouraging greater integration of current and emerging technologies.
While access to the right technologies and tools is crucial, to address the engineering capability challenge, education and training needs to be reimagined.
“Government, industry, educational institutions, and professional associations like Engineers Australia need to collaborate better so as to deliver training in an agile way to be more flexible and relevant,” explained MacMaster.
“That will include a bit of a mix of traditional tertiary education, micro-credentials, and short courses.”
With COVID-19 fast-tracking change in training and education, there has been an explosion in micro-courses, and for many people, it can be difficult to know what courses are worth the time and money. In response, Engineers Australia developed an endorsement framework that helps engineers determine if a micro-credential is quality-assured.
“I think we’re at the beginning of a new era of training, so the more collaborative we are, the more productive the sector will be in supporting industry to be innovative and efficient,” MacMaster said.
Innovation to drive competitive advantage
Another potential government action is to take greater risks in supporting Australian innovation, according to Engineers Australia. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the words “innovating” and “pivoting” have circulated among industries. The disruption meant Australians have had to rethink how they work, play and communicate, with many turning to digital technologies to operate in the new hybrid world.
While the thought of trying new digital technologies and ways of working sounds alarm bells for budgets and schedule overruns, particularly in government departments, MacMaster believes it is time for industry and governments to look at the constraints they currently have that are detrimental to long term success. One starting point identified by Engineers Australia is for the infrastructure sector to shift its mindset to that of a start-up.
“I think we need to have more of a mindset of how this could be done rather than focusing on the past and how it’s been done. Let’s not constrain our thinking with unnecessary constraints,” MacMaster said.
“What can we borrow from how start-ups work to allow for innovation in an infrastructure project?”
One methodology that can be borrowed is the start-up mantra of build-measure-learn. One point that MacMaster stressed was that innovation doesn’t necessarily translate to more risk; she explained that organisations can put checks and balances in place to mitigate risk.
While striving for innovation within the infrastructure sector is all well and good, projects remain open to risk without the right voices in the room at the planning and design stage.
“The more diverse skill set, mindset, perspective, knowledge bases, experiences, the better we will be at complex problem solving,” MacMaster said.
“Infrastructure doesn’t exist by itself anymore. It’s integrated into our economic systems, our social systems, and our physical systems, whether that’s electrical systems, cyber systems, and so forth. It [infrastructure] is smart and it’s integrated and it’s complex. And we cannot solve complex problems with a narrow mindset or skill set.”