Engineers Australia is calling for an overhaul of Australia’s skilled migration program in order to safeguard the nation’s engineering capability.
Almost 60 per cent of engineers in the Australian work force were born overseas, according to the 2016 census. But while the demand for engineers is high, Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans said the current skilled migration system is no longer working.
“There is a serious mismatch between the objectives of the skilled migration program and what is being achieved in the community,” she said.
“Unless research is done and changes are made, we will continue to fail both migrants and employers, and put Australia’s engineering capability and future economic growth at risk.”
This was the warning issued by Engineers Australia in a recent submission to the Skilled Migration Inquiry being run by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration.
Engineers Australia provided a number of recommendations to address the issues, including refining the migration program’s objectives to be more specific and to consider if the program is designed to attract the right people.
“We desperately need skilled migration to fill the gap between the number of engineers required and what universities and the local market can supply,” Evans said.
“Yet once here, overseas-born engineers experience higher unemployment (7.6 per cent) than their Australian-born peers (3.7 per cent) and only 40.9 per cent end up working in an engineering role.”
One cause for concern is that engineers migrating on certain visa classes are required to live in regional Australia for two to four years, but the bulk of engineering roles are in cities.
“With fewer suitable roles available, migrants can find themselves forced to take on employment out of their engineering occupation and may be lost to the profession forever,” Evans said.
Continuing the large-scale intake of qualified migrant engineers would not contribute effectively to the country’s engineering capability and economic growth unless changes were made to the skilled migration program, Evans added.
In its submission, Engineers Australia called on the government to establish an inquiry to investigate the barriers keeping migrant engineers from working in the profession.
Engineers Australia’s General Manager for Policy and Advocacy, Jonathan Russell, said this inquiry was essential for breaking down the barriers that prevent skilled migrants (in engineering and other professions) from making a full contribution within industry.
Russell said the submission highlights “really stark statistics” about the employment of migrant engineers. These fall into two groups: unemployment, in any job, including non-engineering roles, and the rates of employment in engineering roles. On average, migrant engineers fare worse on both counts, with the exception of those from the UK and South Africa.
For example, the overall unemployment figure for overseas-born engineers can be broken down to 6.9 per cent for men and 11.3 per cent for women. This is much higher than the unemployment rate for Australian-born engineers: 3.7 per cent for men and 3.8 per cent for women.
Unemployment rates also vary significantly based on engineers’ country of origin, and where they settled in Australia. For instance, Iranian engineers experienced 14.4 per cent unemployment, while the rate for English and South African migrant engineers was 4.7 per cent.
For those who were employed, migrant engineers were much less likely than Australian-born engineers to work in engineering roles, except for those from England and South Africa.
“The concern is that migrant engineers are arriving in Australia to meet a policy objective of enhancing domestic engineering capability, but we are only making effective use of 40.9 per cent of them (that being the proportion who work in engineering roles),” according to Engineers Australia’s submission.
The lowest rates for migrant engineers working in the profession were 34.1 per cent and 34.4 per cent for those who migrated from the Philippines and China, respectively. The highest were 62.6 per cent for English migrants and 67.9 from South Africa. (For comparison, the percentage of Australian-born engineers employed in the profession was 56.3 per cent.)
While these figures are based on the 2016 census, Russell explained the submission focused on the importance of overall trends in the employment of migrant engineers.
Compounding the problem is that the skills lists for migrants are based on occupation classifications that typically apply to traditional engineering disciplines and roles. But engineering is an evolving profession, and if Australia is to attract migrants with skills in emerging industries and fields of practice, the skills list must be amenable to change.
This includes the points-based system for ranking applicants, which can have the unintended consequence of skewing supply towards those with relatively low levels of work experience.
Understanding the barriers
The submission raised “uncomfortable facts” about the employment of overseas engineers, Russell said. But is there not much evidence to pinpoint why migrant engineers are experiencing such high unemployment rates compared to Australian-born engineers.
To help find solutions to the barriers migrant engineers face, Engineers Australia has embarked on a research project to collect data, which will involve interviewing migrant engineers and employers.
According to research from University of Technology Sydney, the top three potential barriers are: lack of local experience, references, and not holding a permanent visa or citizenship. This study suggested solutions such as providing internship and mentorship opportunities for migrant engineers, as well as upskilling or reskilling.
No one sector can solve this
Russell emphasised the need for government, industry and academia to support Engineers Australia’s efforts to identify and address the barriers to employment of migrant engineers in the profession.
“No one sector of society can solve this, we have to do it together,” he said.
Russell expects Engineers Australia to give more evidence of the need to overhaul skilled migration for the profession at a hearing in the middle of the year.
“It’s important that the people who create policy hear from Engineers Australia about how important skilled migration is, and how we can make it better for everybody,” he said, adding that the lessons learned from studying the experience of migrant engineers may help improve outcomes for other priority professions.
To read Engineers Australia’s submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, click here.
Whilst a very exhaustive and well researched report as a migrant engineer I wish to highlight a few things that the article may have overlooked. The age of skilled migrants qualifying for entry to Australia may be a factor. In order to meet the experience criteria of Immigration department for application the migrants generally apply for engineering jobs on arrival that are not entry level. By then the local graduates have already accumulated local experience both in work culture and language skills. They are then preferred by employers as candidates of choice. I have participated as a volunteer mentor at different times under AMES programs that develop interview and job applicants who are newly arrived professional migrants and I can see this first hand. Also women migrants would generally have younger children to look after when they are trying to get into the workforce here. They leave behind a very supportive extended family care arrangement. The EA submission could perhaps suggest changes to migrant application selection criteria.
Some of the local engineering students I have graduated with are now working in different fields due to not finding employment once they graduated from university. It is a pity to see local engineering students not being employed due to lack of experience and employers preferring experienced engineers from overseas. In addition the engineering profession is generally underpaid compared to other professions and less secure as a a long term job making it less enticing for local students. We need to look how universities can provide graduates that are job ready and encourage employers to provide more graduate positions to allow local engineering students to get a foothold in the industry.
An interesting submission, which accords with my experience over many years. Transition pathways into engineering experience are important, both for newly arrived engineers, and also for those subject to displacement as companies restructure and technologies change. I am aware of a number of capable engineers who, when displaced from previous engineering work and exposure, could not find further engineering employment opportunities, resulting in deterioration in their attractiveness to potential employers.
I came as a migrant some 30+ years ago, and even with a British degree and extensive experience with various international companies (including Australian ones), I had difficulty obtaining work in an engineering field. I am from East Asia. From my perspective, there is a distinct bias against those from East Asia.
I came to Australia with experience on very large construction projects in Middle East and South Asia. I mostly worked with international organisations on latest tech in construction. Yet I struggled to get the first break. Few HR consultants were surprised that I could speak good English even though my CV stated I completed my education in English and worked all my life with multinational organisations. Issue is gatekeepers are themselves not equipped to evaluate if a candidate is qualified for the position. Its always easy to hire someone who is already working with another local company. They don’t look at the CV with non-english names. Change your name to Bob and you will get a interview call.
Few of my friends who have worked with ENR top 10 consultancies couldn’t find a job in their specialisation and had to start fresh. Some left for other pastures. What is the point of getting experienced engineers with weird asian names if they are not going to get work? May be that should be an evaluation criteria.
I feel there should be a support system to help newly arrived engineers in keeping their first step on the employment ladder irrespective of their country of origin.
Engineers in general and especially migrants face an unrelenting continuously “uphill” struggle. Unfavourable supply and demand employment status as a result of too many engineers competing for a limited supply of opportunities. This is exacerbated by the lack of large scale projects, relatively small government expenditure on infrastructure projects, inattractive investment environment, and over-regulation. Add to the above relatively poor remuneration, very demanding job requirements, unfair competition platform (compare a migrant with no connections, no family support, starting from scratch with a local engineer with a big family support well established connections, and local expetience) and add a bit of built-in racial bias (for some migrants). This explains why many migrant engineers either leave the profession or simply leave the country to more rewarding “pastures”.
The stark statistics that the article talks about confirms that if you are not from the UK or South Africa, your chances of getting an engineering job in Australia are slim.
This study brings back memories when I tried to meet with the director/general manager of Engineers Australia in Adelaide to discuss ways that I can do some volunteering work after coming from New Zealand. Unfortunately, she refused to meet with me, because she claimed she was busy, although I paid my membership fees for the service. Later on, I managed to get back on my feet after a few years of struggle, but I will never forget the grief I faced.
It is sad that the article did not mention the r word, because it looks like who you are makes a big difference in getting employment rather than the country you come from. Where I live now, an HR person of a company here in the States (they are called more often “Talent Acquisition”) told me that they blank out the name and place of origin off resumes and also even the university where the candidate got their degree from, so that bias is minimised. I just wish that people would admit that the overhaul of Australia’s skilled migration program is not going to be the panacea. There is a bigger attitude problem to address.
Some of the comments raised on this article do show some stark apprehensions about engineering profession in Australia from a migrant engineer’s perspective. Something Engineers Australia may need to consider when building some dignity back into the profession. The advantage of being the first point of call for prospecting skilled migrant engineers during the skills assessment process can be used effectively by Engineers Australia to start building a profile of potential future migrant engineers. This could be a good source of feedback to the immigration planners to ensure skill profiles are matched with the predicted job vacancies for which the class or speciality of visa is granted. Perhaps also working with placement agencies to proactively arrange job placement for the migrants prior to them landing here could be an option.
With mandatory registration of engineers becoming a reality in most States (and Territories) it is also important for Engineers Australia as a key player in the registration process to provide advocacy and support for its potential member base of new migrant engineers. The financial cost of the immigration process is exhorbitant for new migrants right from start of the skills assessment and application process with Department of Immigration until arrival and resettlement in a foreign land. The frustration of failing to get the right job or entering into the profession can be devastating and a big financial burden for some especially when they don’t qualify for Centrelink payments for few years after arrival. This aspect often gets overlooked by the immigration planners. No point in granting visas when there is no guarantee of placement.
A good article and in line with my own experience. We immigrated to Australia from South Africa and can wholeheartedly agree that it has been a lot more difficult in securing permanent employment than expected. In my experience, it seems to be an issue of not having local experience and a local qualification. Re-skilling, for instance providing less expensive access to short courses in for instance trade specific regulation/standards, SHEQ, local professional body certification etc, would add value and strengthen confidence of local employers.
I’m a migrant from East Asia but graduated from an Australian University more than 20 years ago. I’d returned to Australia in recent years. I worked for international O&G consultancies and operators prior to my arrival. However, I’ve not been able to get back to the same industry despite having further qualified myself as Chartered Engineer with IChemE, BPEQ and now in motion with EA. I was once a very sought after engineer but felt rejected by the system here. The irony is that, with all my qualifications and experience, I’ve not had a chance to be even shortlisted for a job interview within O&G. This is contrasting to what I observed for peers of similar backgrounds from other nations with equivalent/ lower qualifications. Not sure why I was brought in for?
Having worked with many overseas qualified engineers I can concur that South African and English engineers (and American) do seem to slot in quite easily to the Australian Workplace. I have also had experience with Indian, Chinese and Turkish engineers with varying results. Whilst maths and physics are universal languages, it doesn’t seem to collate with my expectations of what I expect from an engineer who says they have over 5 years of experience. Not alloverseas degrees are equivalent to Australian degrees and getting Masters from an Australian University does not fix this issue. Could be that I worked in a small organization and those not performing as expected stood out quite quickly. With all the overseas qualified engineers I have worked with, language never seemed to be a barrier – just attitude – especially towards a more senior, more experienced engineer who also happened to be female.
I am surprised that my comment on 5/5/21 AEST was omitted from publishing. I don’t consider it controversial enough to be selected out. I see comments on the same article that are probably more controversial, especially mentioning racial bias. I am not surprised that some engineers give up on engaging with the system because their voice is not even heard. This is totally disheartening and just as depressing as the findings in the submission. Perhaps if all the studies would make an effort to listen to the victim engineers, we might be in a better place now.
PS I expect the answer (if I ever get one) to be that not all comments are published. Maybe so, but at least the person who sent the comment deserves to know the reason for the omission of publishing her/his comment, don’t you think?
I am a Skill migrant from SEA country with more than 18years solid on-field experience in construction industry and handled complex projects in multiple countries. Recently accredited and awarded with PEng and other valuable titles by EA. In past 3 years I have applied hundreds and hundreds of application for job openings in related field but not even one successful response, not even one interview call. What is the point of getting assessed and approved by EA who recognize our overseas education qualification and work experience but the industry itself having totally different agendas? If every player in the industry ONLY looking for those with local work experience or those with Tom, Harry and Dick names than EA shouldn’t recognize our qualification at first stage itself. I personally feel so cheap as all my hard work and industry experience become null and void just like that!!! Now with no choice I have to work in hospitality industry to survive my family. I also come across few other migrants having same issues as me and ended up in totally different industry and forced to forgo their talent and skills in construction/engineering field. Can I say that the skill migrant program is very successful in filling up gaps in industries which the “local” show no interest with these highly qualified migrants??!!
I believe everyone is right in his/ her perspective/ opinion. I have studied many theories in books and listen lectures about leadership, people and organisations in university, but nowhere I found people applying this knowledge in reality, may be few. After all, all it requires is – “a genuine change in leaders mindset”. Otherwise we are back to ZERO.