|Dr Maryam Raji is a PhD candidate in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Management and Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics.|
To solve the skills shortage for good, we need to inspire a stronger connection with engineering.
Take a look around you and you will see something created by an engineer. From the energy that powers your home, to the car you drive and the device you are reading this on, the handiwork of engineers is all around us.
The shortage of engineers in Australia has been a problem for decades, so what’s different this time and what can be done to address it?
Shrinking supply cannot meet growing demand
The first difference is the vast scale of Australia’s engineering shortage. Our country currently has insufficient numbers of engineers to meet our current demand in all disciplines, except the biomedical fields.
The situation can be labelled a ‘skills shortage’ under the National Skills Commission definition, meaning entire industries could be operating at below-optimal levels because several sectors of the economy rely on engineering talent.
The second difference is the increasing demand for engineers.
This is a result of the relentless infiltration of technology into our daily lives, a burgeoning infrastructure sector, greater awareness of climate change and the resulting shift to cleaner, more sustainable energy — and much more.
In the coming years, we will need more engineers than ever. Engineers Australia estimates the future shortfall to be between 50,000 and 100,000 engineers, yet we have an insufficient number of engineers to satisfy even the current demand.
More engineers from overseas will not sustain our future
The prevailing strategy for plugging Australia’s skills shortage has been to import more engineers.
Successive Federal Governments have been encouraging more overseas engineers to call Australia home. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing border closures have revealed that relying on foreign talent is unsustainable and risky.
Australia is already heavily dependent on foreign engineers. A recent Engineers Australia submission to the Department of Home Affairs show about 70 per cent of engineers in Australia are born overseas.
Engineers Australia research has also uncovered that despite making up the larger proportion of qualified engineers, migrant engineers are more likely than their Australian-born counterparts to work in non-engineering roles or be unemployed.
While these factors can sometimes be attributed to the unique challenges migrants face navigating the Australian jobs market (for example, cultural barriers or lack of networks), migrant engineers share a similar predicament with Australian-born engineers — too many are leaving the profession.
When there are already leaks throughout the pipeline for engineers — because fewer Australians are choosing to study engineering — the increased migration of workers who may not remain in engineering is not a long-term solution.
Strengthening the engineering workforce in Australia, Engineers Australia, 2022.
Identity is key to recruiting and retaining engineers
To better understand the skills shortage, my research surveyed 446 engineers from Australia and six other countries where engineers are in high demand: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It should be noted that in these overseas Arab countries, engineers and doctors are two of the most esteemed professionals in society.
My survey findings show engineers were more likely to leave engineering when they had a low attachment to the profession. In contrast, individuals who felt strongly attached to engineering and saw it as a key part of their identity were less likely to leave.
Those with a strong attachment were more likely to agree with statements like, “engineering is an important part of who I am” and “the difficulties associated with working in engineering are worth it”.
Engineers Australia has identified poor pay (in some sectors) and low prestige associated with engineering compared to other professional fields as challenges in workforce retention.
However, my study found that the high status accorded to engineering in Middle Eastern countries like the UAE helps engineers to remain in the profession.
These findings show that increased attachment to engineering among individuals and greater societal prestige for engineers are linked to a higher retention rate.
So, how can we cultivate a greater attachment to engineering in current and future engineers?
A long-term solution
Young people who do not know what engineers do, how important they are and the benefits of working in the profession are less likely to study engineering.
This is especially true of women, who are already underrepresented in engineering, comprising only 14 per cent of practising engineers in Australia according to the Engineers Australia’s Women in engineering report.
A lack of familiarity with engineering has been cited as the greatest barrier to entering the profession for women, according to a recent survey of women university graduates.
Raising awareness of engineering and encouraging more women to study and remain in engineering can have the double benefit of improving gender parity in the field and helping to alleviate the skills shortage.
For example, my study revealed that a one-unit increase in engineering identity reduced the likelihood of leaving engineering by 36 per cent.
If high school students are better informed about engineering, its different disciplines and career opportunities, they are more likely to select engineering.
Greater exposure to engineering as a potential career option can be aided by encouraging an interest in maths and science — prerequisites for tertiary engineering studies — and providing quality education in those subjects so students are better prepared for engineering studies at university.
Achieving this requires the concerted efforts of careers advisors, teachers, parents, and the broader community.
Initiatives like Engineering is Elementary and Engineers Australia Junior Club already exist in Australia, helping to make engineering fun for primary school children. These can be expanded for pre-teens and teenagers.
Alongside efforts from our educational institutions, influencers on social media outlets (like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube) could be enlisted to promote careers in engineering.
Research indicates that children frequently bond with social media stars and this bonding can influence children’s wishful identification or desire to be like the media star. Promoting engineering as a popular career via social media could encourage interest, cultivate attachment and increase entry rates into the profession.
Once young people have elected to study engineering, it’s important to nurture their attachment to the profession throughout university and beyond by, for example, providing role models, paid internships and accessible pathways to continued professional development.
As engineers move into the workforce, their attachment can be fostered through supportive work environments, competitive salaries and recognition for their roles in building better societies.
Promoting engineering as a prestigious, well-paying profession that provides an avenue for solving some of society’s most pressing problems would produce a new breed of migrant and Australian-born engineers who are more likely to remain in the profession and help to safeguard our economic future.