No more engineers? Understanding Australia’s engineering skills shortage
Evolving national priorities and a growing push for clean energy transitions have increased the demand for engineering skills across all industries. Sustainable objectives are just the beginning. New technologies and the emergence of new sectors - renewables, nuclear and space- all rely on an extensive, upskilled, and diverse engineering workforce.
So why are we talking about all of this? Australia is experiencing what could be its worst engineering skills shortage ever. Nearly all sectors and industries require more engineers, with more than 50,000 spots needing to be filled over the next few years . Engineering skills shortages in Australia are nothing new; it's been a problem since the 1980s. What's different this time is the scale; the scale of the impact on the economy, the scale of disruption to supply chains, inflation, and the sheer number of sectors needing engineers.
Resolving engineering skills shortages clearly requires intervention. This article will summarise a comprehensive inventory of initiatives that can strengthen the workforce. Collaboration between all levels of government, education sectors, industry, and professional associations is needed to nip these systemic challenges in the bud.
How did we get here?
Skills shortages, particularly in industries that require engineering, can lead to longer project timelines, higher project costs and lower national productivity. Knowing how we got here in the first place is an important first step in addressing these looming challenges.
The growing demand for engineering skills comes at a moment in time when Australia has a huge infrastructure pipeline and a growing interest in time-critical ventures like the transition to net zero. Yet the skills shortage has never been more prevalent. Here are some of the factors that define the current situation:
Covid-19 and the subsequent closure of international borders and an almost all-out halt of skilled migrants arriving in Australia have played a massive part in driving this shortage. But there's a lot more going on than just that. According to Engineers Australia's 'Strengthening the Engineering Workforce' report, there exist 'structural and systemic reasons that explain why the engineering workforce supply channels are not keeping pace with demand.' The National Skills Commission predicts that occupations in STEM will increase by 13% over five years as Australia's domestic supply of trained engineers continues to decline persistently .
A decrease in commencements within tertiary engineering degrees compounded with only 25% of engineering students completing their degrees on time and only 50% of commencing engineering students even graduating with an engineering degree are all the ingredients for a chronic skills shortage problem. This is not only the case in Australia; the US and the UK are also experiencing an increase in demand for engineers as they produce relatively low levels of engineers compared to other OECD countries.
Closed borders and net negative migration to Australia because of the pandemic was a heavy blow to Australia's skills supply channel, but it is only partly to blame. In fact, the impacts of the pandemic only exposed a skills issue that was already prevalent.
Boundaries for skilled migrants
58% of the engineering workforce in Australia is born overseas, an indicator that Australia has faced persistent and long-term domestic supply challenges. The logical next step would be to increase the number of skilled migrant engineers. Yet only 40% of skilled migrant engineers in Australia are employed in an engineering role, indicating a serious lack of support for overseas workers to find work in Australia that is congruent with their experience and qualifications .
Research has shown that even when overseas-born engineers find work in the industry, they are often in roles that are not 'not commensurate with their skill or experience level' . Migrants face many boundaries, from a lack of local knowledge and experience to issues with working rights and visas, difficulties in addressing certification queries and a misconception of soft skills because of perceived cultural differences.
A consistent reliance on skilled migrant workers tells us that Australia is facing a domestic supply challenge. Australia is the third lowest producer of engineers as a proportion of all graduates in the OECD. There has been a sizable decline in the number of young Australians choosing to study tertiary engineering degrees. Adding insult to injury, the Australian Mathematics Sciences Institute (AMSI) has reported that the number of Australian school students choosing to study intermediate and higher-level mathematics and other engineering prerequisites is at an all-time low.
Even those that graduate with a tertiary qualification in engineering, only around 60% continue to work in that profession. So, the engineering skills shortage will probably worsen before it gets better. And it will require long-term commitment, collaboration and action by the government, industries and the education sector.
Another key issue is representation. While the engineering professions are the biggest employer of the STEM disciplines, it has the smallest female representation. 16% of engineering students are female, 13% of qualified engineers in Australia are female, and only 11.2% of the engineering workforce is female . These statistics are telling of the inadequate efforts to make engineering an appealing vocation for all. Even worse, it's indicative of an inability to retain and nurture talent.
According to Engineers Australia, there is a significant lack of positive perceptions about the engineering profession; it's consistently seen as being 'too hard or male-dominated. Further, a major barrier to encouraging students from studying engineering or being retained as professionals are a result of non-inclusive work cultures and inequalities when it comes to opportunity, with over 2/3 of female engineers reporting to have left their engineering roles as a result of this.
According to a recent survey of women outside the engineering profession, over 90% said they didn't even consider engineering or barely even considered it. The most cited reasons were the fact that there was a lack of awareness of what the profession is and what engineers do. It's clear engineering has a severe PR issue. Increasing awareness of engineering as a fulfilling and impactful career choice among students and the teachers and parents that influence them should be a major focal point to encourage equal participation in the profession, boost and empower the role of women and alleviate the skills shortage.
How to strengthen the engineering workforce
Australia's shortage of engineers requires comprehensive action that not only boosts the pipeline of prospective engineers but also retains talent in the workforce. Below, we'll summarise some of the actions that government, industry bodies and the tertiary education sector can take to alleviate current skill supply shortages.
Government policies and incentives can go a long way to strengthen the engineering workforce. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown that Australian schools' performance in mathematics and science has been declining since 2003 . All levels of government can work to increase Australia's teaching capability in STEM subjects. Government can provide resources and financial support to schools to encourage young people to choose to study maths and science.
In tertiary settings, the government can provide financial support to engineering students to encourage and help students finish their studies in a minimum timeframe. Further, providing Commonwealth Supported Places (CPS) for engineering master's qualifications to help upskill engineers in the workforce in emerging and evolving sectors.
The government can incentivize organizations and contractors to establish comprehensive and well-developed graduate and internship schemes in the industry. It could also directly offer these internships or graduate programs in government agencies that require engineering capabilities.
The government can also enhance Australia's migration program. Attracting migrants with specific skills and experience to work and gain employment in their respective fields through increased sponsorship programs and opportunities. The government should provide clear and credible information on employment pathways to skilled migrants and start initiatives to help overseas workers develop local knowledge and the soft skills required in the industry.
The AEC industry plays a big role in helping to retain engineers in the workforce. The industry's primary approach should consider the concept of 'train to retain.' As is the case in any industry, to retain talent, they need a reason to stay. Providing visibility in career pathways, engagement, opportunities for self-direction, upskilling, and re-skilling is vital for retention. Also, where there is great demand and little supply, raising salaries to ensure good talent is retained in highly skilled areas is important in strengthening the existing workforce and incentivizing newcomers into the industry.
Larger companies requiring engineering skills should also aim to have a developed graduate scheme to provide graduates with rotational experience and upskill new cohorts of graduates while helping newcomers to the sector find their calling. Even smaller companies and startups should offer more internships. Pressures on businesses drive employers to find ways to get value from hires sooner. A way to get value sooner is to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and career skills through internships. This is something we believe in at CalcTree!
Further, companies should invest in international students who complete their studies in Australia, providing pathways for them to transition into sponsored roles that eventually lead to permanent migration. Even with government objectives to enhance domestic capabilities, skilled migrants still make up a bulk of the labour force, and they should be supported by systems in government and in industry.
Increasing the supply of engineers entering the workforce is another part of the skills shortage solution. Building a skilled workforce of engineers needs to begin early in students' education. The awareness of engineering, the disciplines it covers and how it contributes to society should have its roots in early education by providing the resources, engagement, and grounding of STEM in school.
According to Engineers Australia, the country's difficulty in developing engineers domestically is greatly a result of a reduction in Year 12 maths and science participation. Students need to feel prepared to enter the profession, and this can be done by raising awareness of the skills and prospective career opportunities among teachers, students, parents, and career advisors. Maths and science in high school can be quite intimidating. Often students who do poorly do not choose these subjects in their final year of school when they become prerequisites for tertiary engineering studies.
Boosting the pipelines of engineers certainly doesn't end in primary and secondary education. Even at the tertiary level, a considerable number of university students either take longer to complete their degree or do not complete their degree in engineering at all. Exploring and offering innovative pathways to obtain engineering qualifications should be a consideration at a tertiary level.
Remember, students that begin studying for a degree in engineering should have the skills to finish it, yet the completion rate is 50%; new approaches should be on the table. Contacting students who withdraw from their course to determine what kinds of support, if any, could be an appropriate method to retain them in their studies and gain an understanding of the motivators behind these decisions. Universities should also help students find and secure graduate program employment opportunities by working with industry and government.
All over the world, infrastructure projects from airports, schools, and highways, to power systems are affected by the shortage of skilled technicians and engineers. This will only be exacerbated by the growing need for multidisciplinary engineers required in new fields, particularly in renewable technologies and robotics and the general digitalisation of the industry.
More and more countries and organizations are committing to the tenets of the UN sustainability goals, and engineering professions offer a vital lever by which to achieve these goals. Without a consistent pipeline of talent with the right skills, it will become harder to realize these objectives. Actions to solve the skill shortages and labor challenges should start now. It would require effective cooperation between all levels of government, agencies, industry, and the education sector.
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