ACT public service facing a 'brain drain' as low salaries deter talent

Growing pay gaps between salaries offered in the ACT and other states are causing a "brain drain" as the territory fails to attract and retain technical and engineering specialists, the union for the specialists said.

Engineers are leaving the ACT in favour of higher wages interstate, the professionals' union says. Photo: Karleen Minney

Engineers are leaving the ACT in favour of higher wages interstate, the professionals' union says. Photo: Karleen Minney

Following last week's 4.7 per cent pay rise for senior public servants, Professionals Australia has warned the ACT faces losing the best and brightest engineers to major projects in other states, as well as the private sector, as wages haven't grown in two years.

A comparison of equivalent bands in workplace agreements covering engineers working in transport shows a senior professional engineer in the ACT starts in their band earning about $10,000 a year less than their counterparts at VicRoads, $8000 a year less than if they were at Queensland Transport and Main Roads, and $7000 a year less than at Transport NSW.

The agreement covering technical workers in the ACT public service is being voted on at the moment, and if agreed to would offer salary increases of 1.35 per cent every six months. The current agreement expired in 2017, with no pay rises since then.

Professionals Australia's ACT director Dale Beasley said in a market with major infrastructure projects slated for Victoria and shipbuilding ramping up in South Australia, the ACT is not keeping up in a competitive market.

"We're seeing the early signs of a brain drain in the ACT as a consequence of this misguided approach to paying workers. It has to change," he said.

"We hear stories of engineers leaving the territory all the time as pay is simply not keeping up."

Mr Beasley said members were unimpressed by the pay rise given to senior public servants as their voting window opened, with many planning to reject the offer after seeing the more generous increases higher up the chain of command.

Canberra's universities don't produce enough engineering graduates to serve the ACT market, meaning talent must be attracted from interstate, Mr Beasley said. That is a prospect that is made more difficult with the gap between senior and lower ranks when it comes to salary increases.

"There are reasons why engineers choose to stay [in the ACT], but when they start to see wages over the border and the discrepancy between executive pay and what you're getting, it starts to inform your decision-making process," he said.

Workers who had long worked in technical roles were also moving more into policy roles, or their roles were changing to include more policy and less technical work, meaning more technical work is being contracted out to the private sector, Mr Beasley said.