In any society, the value of engineers cannot be underestimated.
In Australia, engineers designed and delivered the Snowy Hydro scheme and the Loy Yang Power Plant, for example.
Going forward, engineers will lead the design of intelligent road networks, advanced defence systems, new manufactured products and low carbon energy systems. They will be at the forefront of the quality, safety and sustainability of our built environment.
In order to deliver on these areas, Australia needs young people coming through who possess not only analytical and problem solving skills but also a strong grounding in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related areas such as maths and science.
Yet as outlined in a recent Engineers Australia report, numbers of those studying such subjects are falling. In 2001, the proportion of young men studying intermediate maths, advance maths, physics and chemistry in Year 12 stood at 38.6 percent, 15.9 percent, 25.1 percent and 19.1 percent respectively (data outlined in a paper by researchers Kennedy, Lyon and Quinn in 2014). By 2015, Engineers Australia estimates that those rates had fallen to 28.4 percent, 11.5 percent, 21 percent 19.2 percent. In the case of women, rates of those studying physics and advanced maths sit at just 5.9 and 6.2 percent.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is flowing through to the number of students entering engineering courses, which have plateaued at around 15,000 over the past two years after several years of growth during the resource construction boom.
Thus far, much of the gap between engineering graduates and industry requirements has been met by foreign labour. In 2015, Australia graduated 9,850 new engineers but imported a further 16,487 though permanent and temporary visa holders. Whereas 40.3 percent of the population who work in other professions throughout Australia was born overseas, in engineering, that portion is 57.3 percent.
Whilst overseas workers bring valuable skills, the degree of this reliance is worrying. In recent years, a strong economic performance relative to international peers has made Australia attractive to migrants. As economies elsewhere improve, however, fewer migrants will want to leave home and those who do will have greater options. Furthermore, our ability or otherwise to attract and retain overseas workers remains subject to other factors which are beyond the control of the engineering profession. These include community attitudes toward migrant workers, immigration policy and Australia’s ‘brand’ as a migrant destination.
Chris Stolz, president of the Victorian Division of Engineers Australia said numbers of young people coming through Year 11 and Year 12 who will be eligible to study engineering are concerning.
“The numbers are going to fall off a cliff,” Stolz told the audience at the launch of the aforementioned report in Melbourne on March 23.
“Whatever we have been doing over the past few years, quite frankly we are devastated. It hasn’t worked. All those efforts that we have been putting in to encourage kids to take up the sciences – we are not seeing an upturn (in numbers).”
Asked about the built environment specifically, Stolz says the consequences are serious. Expertise about how to apply relevant standards in design and construction supervisory roles was critical, he said – a phenomenon illustrated by incidents in Victoria such as Lacrosse in 2014 and the collapse of walls on a Mount Waverley building site which left homes teetering on the brink of collapse the following year.
Beyond that, engineers who understand the local context and political environment are needed to advise government about public sector decisions.
“We often think of engineers as the ones who do the design and the creativity,” Stolz said. “But there is a whole cohort of engineers who work for the government and the local government. They are the customer in many cases. So if you haven’t got engineers who understand rail and understand infrastructure, where is the government getting good advice (from an engineering perspective)? It’s going to be a sad day if we are not going to produce enough engineers to give governments the sort of advice they need.”
“The Turnbull Snowy Project (proposal to expand the capacity of the Snowy Hydro facility)) is a great idea. But did Turnbull get advice from a bunch of bankers or did he get advice from engineers who understand hydro, who understand electricity and even understand that particular hydro scheme and how it might work?”
Other commentators agree that there is a problem.
Phil D’Adamo, Executive Director, Tech Schools Initiative, Department of Education and Training Victoria described a flatlining in numbers of students coming through engineering courses. Already, he said, employers were struggling to find suitable people.
Professor John Wilson from the Australia Council of Engineering Deans also talks about flatlining – not just in absolute numbers but also in the proportion of students who are girls (currently around 15 percent) despite efforts to encourage more women to take up engineering.
Asked about the impact on the built environment, Dr Kourosh Kayvani, Global Director of Engineering and Expertise at Aurecon said it was crucial for engineers to advise governments about strategic level infrastructure policy decisions – though he stresses that the type of engineers coming through is as important as the quantity. This includes areas such as energy, urbanisation, technology and smarter transport.
Vera Near, from the Design Technology Teachers Association, said it was critical to have engineers who understand the local context, whilst Wilson said Australia must lift its localised engineering intake in order to stay ahead of the game in terms of new product and enterprise development.
What should be done? D’Adamo said it said it was important to inspire children to take up engineering related subjects through exposing them to solving real-life problems and challenges. Near, Meanwhile, said it was important to engage and inspire students with the dream of engineering at a grass roots level. Kayvani says it is important to think about the quality as well as the quantity of engineers. In the past, he said, training has followed a cookie cutter approach toward problem solving involving predefined problems and logical solutions. He says instead we need to look at how we frame challenges which are increasingly globalised which involve solutions across multiple disciplines and multiple facets.