Federal Politics

Australia's engineering shortage will get worse

New, sustained investment is needed to address a looming crisis, CHRIS WALTON writes

Most engineers are too polite to tell you this but our country has a real problem on its hands. It affects you now but it is about to get a lot worse.

Engineers tend to keep it secret because they make it their job to fix problems, to keep systems going. That's just part of being a professional engineer. But if you ask them about it directly they'll tell you that in recent times this problem has turned into an ever-increasing crisis.

And the problem is this: we just don't have enough engineers to maintain our renowned high standard of living. And before you tune out just think about what you rely on engineers for every day.

They get you to work on time. They make sure the building you work in stays up. They design the gadgets that make it easier to do your chores and keep you entertained. They make sure your house is supplied with electricity and fresh water every day. They quietly solve the impossibly hard problems that the rest of us don't even know exist. They are also Australia's great innovators.

So if we are going to have a smart high-end manufacturing sector like Germany we need lots of engineers. If we want to solve problems like tapping into geothermal energy we need engineers and if we want to solve the big problems of the future - including ones have not even come across yet - we need engineers.

So when the federal government puts out a report saying that we have a record skills crisis in engineering because we have failed to produce enough engineers over the past 20 years they are saying that our economy and your future is going to be hurt by it.

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If you like traffic snarls and power blackouts, unemployment lines and water restrictions we'll you're going to love this crisis in Australian engineering. There are several reasons that this is happening and the frustrating thing is that governments, universities, companies and unions have been predicting it for decades.

Australia's workforce is ageing and the development of technical skills is not keeping pace with the retirements. Many engineers also leave the profession altogether because they are recruited to more rewarding jobs. On top of this we have a static rate of graduates, high dropout rates and lower and lower numbers of secondary students interested in completing the required maths and science to enter engineering. And the proportion of women engineers is appallingly low at less than 10 per cent.

When floods and other disasters occur these naturally have to take priority, but it means regular maintenance work and safety upgrades is postponed, usually by many years.

The situation is critical. Demand from the resources sector is putting enormous pressures on the supply of suitably skilled engineers, while population growth means demand for basic infrastructure continues to rise.

Globally, things don't look much brighter. More than 50 per cent of the world's engineering graduates come from Asia and while migration assists us in the short term, the massive population and domestic economic development in India and China means we'll find it harder to compete. Signs of the economic recovery in the US will just add to the pressure.

The consequences of the problem are also stark, although perhaps not widely understood. It's estimated by major construction companies that up to 20 per cent of the costs of major construction projects is wasted due to the shortage of engineers.

This happens because we don't have enough engineers in the public sector to cost major projects properly any more, so we end up spending more money on badly managed projects and therefore we end up building fewer roads, railway lines and bridges. This, in turn, ultimately undermines our competitiveness and causes lost productivity in our economy and a reduction of our standard of living.

Thankfully, the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia was able to help convince the Senate to have a good hard look into this quiet but serious problem. Along with its support for the Australian National Engineering Taskforce the federal government has begun to seriously tackle the problem of engineering skills shortages.

The inquiry should shed more light on the risks we all face of not acting on this problem effectively and it should come up with long-term solutions. If we don't nip this problem in the bud now it will cost us much more in the future.

One thing is clear, if we simply leave things up to the market or the initiative of individual players, nothing will change. We need all governments and political parties to provide leadership, in the community interest, and drive new and sustained investment in the engineering workforce.

This should come through improvements to the education system, but it is also in the direct interest of government, as a purchaser of engineering services, to ensure it gets real value for money.

Governments need to be smart and really exploit their own market power to drive reforms in both the public and private sector. Private sector companies do the vast bulk of publicly funded engineering work and it follows that governments cannot, and should not, regard private sector engineers as beyond their responsibility. We need a new foundation for our engineering services capacity and capability, and must lift the floor on investment in engineering workforce development. But we need to do more than that. We need to fight this problem on all fronts.

And whether that's as simple as suggesting to bright young kids that they might want to become an engineer or as difficult as demanding more funding for our engineering schools from our politicians every Australian has a role to play in defending our future from a critical lack of engineers.

Chris Walton is chief executive of the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia.