Labor’s National Reconstruction Fund (NRF) is designed to boost investment in advanced manufacturing, infrastructure and innovation that Australia has been lacking. But to deliver on this commitment, engagement with Australia’s engineering skills deficit is required.
This is the message from Engineers Australia following a federal election with significant ramifications for the profession. While Engineers Australia welcomes the $15 billion fund expected to help rebuild Australia’s industrial base, there will be upward pressure on the demand for engineers at a time when they are already in short supply.
“New projects in infrastructure, defence, and advanced manufacturing point to a strong forward vision, however the current shortage of skilled engineers and STEM professionals puts delivery of these projects at risk,” said Engineers Australia Acting CEO Michael Luddeni.
“Engineers are at the forefront in responding to the effects of climate change, delivering Australia’s economic recovery, building resilient communities and responding to global instability.
“So the priority from the government must be to address the skills shortage.”
What needs to happen to strengthen the skills pipeline?
Luddeni believes holistic and long-term plans from schools, universities and industry partnerships will be needed to fill the current shortage, and the earlier the better “so investment can go to the right areas”.
“Developing a strong pipeline of STEM professionals to fill domestic shortages also requires engagement from primary school to university and constructive involvement by industry to ensure the education provided meets the needs of business,” Luddeni said.
That education focus and investment should also go into delivering high quality and more agile and targeted training methods that reflect the current learning landscape of the digital age. For Engineers Australia’s Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng, that should “include a mix of traditional tertiary education, micro-credentials, and short courses”.
Another important pillar is having a skilled migration program that is fit for purpose.
“At the last census 58 per cent of Australia’s engineering team were born overseas and skilled migrants play a crucial role in maintaining Australia’s engineering capability,” MacMaster said. “The profession relies on talent, knowledge and experience from around the globe.”
With Australia competing with the United States, the United Kingdom and the rest of the OECD, Australia’s visa application process and immigration system and programs must be seamless if we are to attract highly skilled talent to deliver on big projects.
In 2021, Engineers Australia called for a major overhaul of Australia’s skilled migrant system. In their submission to the Federal Joint Standing Committee on Migration inquiry, Engineers Australia called out the “inefficient utilisation of migrant engineers”, which sees qualified professionals more likely to work in “non-engineering roles”.
Engineers Australia acknowledges this is a problem that industry and government need to address together to ensure smart, skilled engineering professionals are in roles that are appropriate to them.
A chance to drive home-grown innovation and sovereign capability
MacMaster previously told create that the country would benefit from someone within government willing to take ownership of the question of sovereign capability. With the NRF the industry just might be getting it.
“The National Reconstruction Fund is a welcome initiative as investment in capabilities, defence and renewables help to build resilience in the face of global disruption,” said Luddeni.
With Labor forming a majority government with 77 seats, and the teal wave of independents and Greens claiming heartland Liberal seats, Luddeni sees “enormous opportunities for Australia to implement meaningful reform and policy at a unique time in our nation’s history”.