Australia faces significant challenges in developing the engineering workforce of the future, a conference has heard.

At the Climate Smart Engineering Conference hosted by Engineers Australia in November, a panel session explored the challenges facing the engineering profession in terms of developing and maintaining a sufficient workforce to meet long-term requirements.

Speakers included Kane Thorton, CEO of the Clean Energy Council; Dr Damian Oliver, Assistant Secretary (Workforce Futures) at Jobs and Skills Australia; Amy Lezala Zahr FIEAust EngExec, Chief Engineer – Rail at the Department of Transport and Planning in Victoria; and Paul Williams, Managing Director, Mining and Energy at multi-disciplinary engineering firm WSP.

The discussion came as Australia faces challenges in terms of the capacity of both its engineering workforce specifically and its design and construction workforce more generally.

These are being driven by a record pipeline of work on transport projects along with a massive volume of clean energy work.

They are being intensified by competition for resources amid active infrastructure programs in the US and Europe.

As things stand, job vacancies for most classes of engineer are at their highest level since the mining boom.

As of December, the Public Infrastructure Workforce Supply Dashboard published by Infrastructure Australia says that the nation had a shortage of 240,000 infrastructure workers.

According to that dashboard, worker shortages exist across almost all categories of engineering. This includes civil engineers, land surveyors, geotechnical engineers, quantity surveyors, telecoms engineers, mechanical engineers, maintenance planners, environment professionals, building surveyors and IT professionals, electrical engineers, engineering managers and others.

By 2050, the recent report entitled ‘The Clean Energy Generation’ published by Jobs and Skills Australia estimates that the number of workers who are needed across 38 occupations that are critical to the clean economy will reach 2.2 million.

This is well above the less than 1.6 million people who are currently employed in these occupations.

In addition to several other areas, that report suggests that shortages of workers are expected across many engineering and related occupations.

It found that between now and 2030, the engineering workforce will need to grow by about 8 percent per annum in order to meet demand.

All this comes as Engineers Australia released its analysis of the engineering workforce in November based on Census and other data.

That analysis found that:

  • Over the five years to 2021, the expansion in demand for engineers outpaced new supply by a factor of three to one.
  • Australia is dependent on foreign engineers, who made up 70 percent of new engineers over the five years to 2021.
  • Around 3,200 engineers leave the profession for other sectors annually whilst up to 68,133 engineers will retiree over the next fifteen years.
  • Around 20 percent of Australia’s qualified engineers are not actively working in the engineering workforce.
  • Women make up only 14 percent of the nation’s engineering workforce whilst First Nations Australians make up only 0.3 percent of qualified engineers working in engineering.

All this raises questions about how to ensure that Australia maintains a sufficient number of engineers to meet current and future needs.

During the discussion, several themes stood out.


1. Challenges in transitioning engineers with specialist skills.

Speaking from a transport perspective, Lezala Zahr said that there are challenges in maintaining specialist skill sets over the long term.

Drawing on her own experience as a qualified engineer for rolling stock, Lezala Zahr said that she had personally decided not to continue her competency in that area on account of the ‘feast and famine’ nature of that industry.

On Victoria’s Big Build, she said that uncertainty about the long-term pipeline of work can mean that it is challenging to support engineers in specialist skill sets to remain in Australia and to continue their competency once their immediate roles are completed.

This raises concerns that we may develop a large number of engineers with specialist skills only to see these people leave once opportunities in Australia dry up.

To help address this, Lezala Zahr says that diversification is important.

For example, those with fire engineering experience relating to rolling stock could potentially be employed as fire engineers on buildings.

Another example is signalling – a field which is undergoing change on account of digitisation and automation of train controls. Those who possess basic skills in this area can be supported to develop the ability to handle different types of automation and different products. This will enable them to access a broader range of opportunities within Australia without needing to head overseas.


2. Many sectors competing for similar resources. Overseas competition.

Next, there are challenges as different sectors compete for similar resources.

Speaking from his own experience with the mining and energy division at WSP, Williams says that these two sectors are largely pulling on similar specialist resources as Australia gears up for a decarbonised economy.

Most immediately, electrification is pulling on electrical engineering resources. Elsewhere, areas such as pumped hydro, wind, solar and others are putting considerable pressure on civil resources whilst hydrogen is pulling on process and other engineering roles.

These challenges are being further compounded by strong international demand for skills on account of active infrastructure programs in the US and Europe.


3. Churn is a Massive Problem.

All this demand is leading to higher levels of staff turnover and churn.

One engineering company CEO lamented that 44 percent of his engineers have joined his company over the past eighteen months. This was impacting productivity as new staff need to be onboarded.

Thornton agrees. Speaking from an energy transition viewpoint, he says that the Clean Energy Council’s networking nights have come to resemble an AFL draft where employers desperately vie for top talent.


4. We are training enough engineers. We need to feed them through into employment.

Despite the talk of engineering shortages, Oliver says that Jobs and Skills Australia modelling in fact indicates that Australia is training a sufficient number of engineers on an aggregate basis.

Problems are occurring however, as the cohort of undergraduates is heavily weighted toward international students. This is problematic as the rate at which we are transferring these students into graduate, middle and senior engineering roles is lower than it should be.

To address this, Oliver says that more work-integrated learning opportunities need to be embedded into training. In addition, employers should be more proactive in developing graduate programs which cater for the needs of international students following graduation.

Thornton agrees. He says a good example is a graduate program which the CEC has developed in conjunction with leading companies and the Australian Energy Market Operator to help to train the next generation of grid engineers to manage the integration of large-scale renewables with the energy grid. This is an area in which suitably qualified personnel are in extremely short supply on account of massive deployment of large-scale renewables, a limited pool of domestic workers with suitable experience and challenges in translating international experience into the Australian market on account of unique features which are associated with Australia’s energy grid.

The CEC and others are also seeking to improve grid connection processes so as to minimise the level of resource capability that is needed for the task.


5. Need to support female engineers through caregiving.

Next, Lezala Zahr says that female engineers require better career support through periods of caregiver responsibilities.

Speaking about the broader Australian workforce overall, Lezala Zahr says that workforce composition is relatively even from a gender viewpoint upon graduation.

However, significant disparities emerge from age 24 onward as women (who are most commonly the primary caregivers) step back from the workforce on account of caring responsibilities.

When this happens, many women step down to part time and step out of the career ladder. This not only impacts social equity and workforce gender diversity but also sees engineering and other industries lose out on critical workforce capacity.

To address this, Lezala Zahr says that initiatives such as job-sharing arrangements or part-time career progression are needed.

Such initiatives will help female engineers to return to full-time work after caring responsibilities without needing to do so at entry levels.

They may also help women to avoid a loss of confidence which can be associated with significant periods out of the full-time workforce.


6. More openness to resources on projects.

Speaking from WSP’s viewpoint, Williams says that there may be opportunities to be more open in terms of the resources and people who are employed on projects.

In particular, there may be opportunities to bring back engineers who are employed in other sectors such as finance or information technology.

Many workers in this category retain invaluable skills such as structured thinking and problem solving.

If brought back into engineering, many would be able to re-grasp important technical concepts relatively quickly.


7. Profiling and clear transition pathways are critical.

Finally, it is important to provide clear pathways to help people to transition into engineering.

As part of research which it undertook in relation to the clean energy transition, Thornton says the CEC found that many people are interested in working with the transition and understood that this was part of the future.

Nevertheless, there are challenges for those who work in other parts of the economy to visualise what specific roles may be available for them. Many also find it difficult to understand how they can go from where they are now to a role which is more central to the clean economy.

To help overcome this, the CEC recently launched a Careers for Netzero campaign.

The campaign’s web page profiles ten specific occupations which CEC believes are critical for the clean energy transition.

These include electricians, engineers, facilities managers, blade technicians, community engagement advisors, insulation installers, investment analysts, net zero business advisors, policy advisors and project managers.

This, Thornton says, has been critical.

Since ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, he says it is important to profile important roles as well as to provide resources to help people understand how they can make their career transition into engineering and other related roles.