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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.

engineers

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.

 
  • I have been banging on about this for years. I have written to Government ministers. The state of talent in engineering is appalling. The GOVERNMENT is bringing in "skilled engineers" from Asia on Permanent resident visa's that are unemployable. That is why we've had an engineering skills shortage for over a decade. It's not "looming", it's already here. I have asked one question without an acceptable reply (or any reply from Government), Why are ENGLISH engineers not being given residency? Why is it just Asian engineer? I have 15 years of experience working in RECRUITMENT so I know what Australian engineering firms want! What were being given from Asia isn't good enough to work here which is why we still have a skills shortage!

    • Mr. Simon Bloom, l can quite understand the delicacy of the matter you are addressing here, what I don't understand is the part you referred to the Australian regulations that prevents accepting English engineers as skilled migrants. I know for certain that there are no restrictions in the Australian immigration law that prohibits English engineers from applying for a skilled migrant visa. Besides I know many middle eastern and Asian engineers who have filled quite high positions in Australian firms. Therefore, with all due to respect, I have to disagree with your idea about unemployable Asian engineers.

    • Yeah, should only bring in Engineer who speak English such as Ireland, UK, US, New Zealand and Europe on 457?

    • Back in the mid seventies and early to mid eighties, last century I acknowledge, companies nurtured their employees. There were graduate programs for the likes of engineers and other technical people. Larger companies invested in their employees by offering specialised training, incentive to take up further education and an environment to promote new ideas and innovation.
      By the mid eighties the manufacturing companies started to bring in "efficiencies". They made many experienced people in the technical areas redundant and of course started to reduce local manufacturing.
      Technical and engineering staff numbers would be ramped-up, on a contract basis, for specific projects and then reduced on the completion of the project.
      The nurturing of employees disappeared (another cost cutting exercise?) and contractors were expected to hit the ground running, or in some cases, sprinting.
      This of course then evolved, thanks to the 457 visas, into the importation of cheaper, less experienced and certainly ignorant of Australian requirements, overseas engineers.
      What we have today is a not insignificant group of very experienced engineers, Baby Boomers, coming to the end of their careers due to age, still capable and willing to work but unemployable because 457 visas provide a much cheaper alternative.
      Very few companies realise that these experienced engineers could be used as mentors to improve and nurture their younger technical and engineering employees. Pity.

  • My comments are fact! The Australian government is not giving permanent residency to people from the UK. Instead it's Iran, India the Middle East etc. Sadly these people more often than not, don't have the transferable skills and experience to work in the Sydney Civil and Building Structures Design industry. That's why so many are unemployed here and will not be able to find work.

    Engineers from the UK do have transferable skills and hit the ground running in Aus. THIS IS ALL FACT AND I AM THE ONE PERSON THAT KNOWS!

    20 years ago a civil engineer in Sydney would graduate with 100% of other students being Australian. Now it's less than 50%. Australia has sold out it's education (and property) to Asia because they pay $38K a year compared to $8K for an Australian student. That's why Education has become the 3rd largest industry in Australian at over $20billion last year. That's more than Tourism.

    It's a catastrophe for the future of AUSTRALIAN Engineering and YES Australia should put Australian's first. Just like there are now more Asian's buying property in Sydney than first home owners!

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with people from other countries studying here, providing a decent percentage remain here to work and further contribute to our economy and the skills shortage. Sadly the majority leave Australia which is why we have a skills shortage. The government's solution has been to go to Asia for "skilled migrants". THIS HAS NOT WORKED. FACT.

  • Unfortunately, research shows that engineers find it hard to explain the value of what they do in terms that are meaningful to business leaders, investors and politicians, mainly because this is not taught by engineering schools. See my blog at jamesptrevelyan.com for more on this.

  • "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…"
    What you left out was, "… and who are idealistic and stupid enough to spend 4-5 years solid undergraduate study, and then be paid half to a third the renumeration rate of a banker, financier, physician or lawyer, for the same intellect. Also having 10 years experience and being less than 25 years old helps."

    • I would also add, "…a tradie (in any category ie tiler, electrician, roof repairer, gardener, florist…and many others" that require sometime 1 or 2 day, maybe one week course..

  • I would agree with Mr. Bob Maghbooli's views. My thoughts are as follows – The people of UK have an advanced lifestyle which maybe comparable to Australia. Hence that could be one reason why people may not want to leave UK and come to Australia. Maybe Mr. Bloom's experience has been with those engineers from Asia who may not have been upto his expectations. I cannot comment otherwise as I have not met the people with whom Mr. Bloom has interacted with and would not be correct to speak about people whom I have not met. There are many Asian engineers who are good and can pick up skills provided they are given that opportunity. Alternately, a 2-3 months course to get aligned with the Australian codes and methodology of work can be imparted to migrants at a low cost. If Asian people, especially Chinese and Indians can go to the US and perform in a different unit based system (metric as opposed to foot pound system), and do extremely well, I do not think, it would be difficult to do the same here. Hence I would tend to agree with Mr. Maghbooli. Besides Indians are being taken to US and UK to teach English and Mathematics. The pronunciation and style of speaking may differ, though. Besides, many students from good schools from tier 1 and tier 2 Indian cities speak fluent English and their grammar is better than their counterparts in the USA and now kids in smaller towns are also being exposed to good English.
    I would agree with Mr. Bloom's comment partially that to a certain extent, there may be engineers who are not up to the mark. However, for a person to succeed in any environment, the following qualities help – the person's can do attitude, willingness to learn new skills, a good personality, perseverance, dedication, commitment, honesty and integrity. Cheers!

  • This have been a typical problem and that has to be pointed to the people in charge of the whole Australian Engineering. There are so many barriers still for young and old people to be recongnised and it seems that they provided opportunities but those opportunities are full of barriers that no one is interested in actually working in any engineering field. So speak to Universities to come down to the reality of Australian people instead of putting barriers up for local students.

  • Australia's big problem is it doesn't recognize its own people with RPL obtained from many different fields of Engineering over a 30 year working career, not every body could attend Uni 30 years ago like today. 30 years ago there was many Government body's SEC – Gas & Fuel – Ammunition – Rail that focused on apprenticeships with each identity taking on hundreds of apprentices, you will find the Government has lost all these qualifications through many Government body's being merged and no archiving of skills and qualifications, the concept of Engineering Degrees was for a very few lucky people.
    Terminology of Superintendent – Technician – Associate Engineer isn't granted in recognition if career fields isn't of one category. ie: Mechanical Engineering isn't the same as Marine Engineering but have many similarities, then you add Civil Engineering or some Electrical Engineering or some Manufacturing Engineering into a 30 year career and request RPL with all the knowledge learnt in Australian industry's and Engineers Australia doesn't recognize RPL yet Engineers Australia write this page and wonder why Australia has a shortage of its own home grown people with 30 years experience that have trained Student Engineers.
    To be a good Engineering it requires knowledge from many fields of Engineering and life experiences.
    Engineering Australia need to change its methods behind RPL and support its own and not support Governments and Company's that accept qualifications from other country's then maybe Australia wont have a skills shortage.

  • The attributes that make a good engineer are aptitude and experience. Yes, a good grounding in science, and physics in particular, are essential, but no-one will ever become a useful engineer without years of experience on as big a variety of "hands-on" projects as possible. By hands-on I mean being directly involved and making decisions in design, construction and maintenance situations.

    You are not an engineer when you leave university with a degree. Becoming a real engineer is all about being exposed to and informed about, real-world problems and learning how to best solve them, often through making some mistakes along the way. Herein lies the real problem.

    Government owned and run utilities in Australia (and elsewhere) were the traditional training grounds for graduate engineers, allowing them to be exposed to a wide variety of engineering environments, while being nurtured by experienced engineering mentors who had already "been there and done that". I am personally a product of that system and very proud to admit it. These were times when engineering was seen as an essential public service and it was seen to be in everyone's interest for it to be as good as it could be.

    In the 1990s everything changed. It was deemed that monetary savings could be made by governments by out-sourcing their engineering work and in many instances completely privatising the organisations that essentially provided "apprenticeships" for young engineers. From that point on engineering became a business rather than a vocation. Engineers needed to become as much accountants as engineers; and as time has gone by many engineering graduates have had to virtually become full-time pseudo-accountants, having neither the formal training to be an accountant nor the necessary experience to be a real engineer.

    There has now been a whole generation of graduate engineers in Australia who have never had much, or any, hands-on experience in engineering and many have risen to the ranks of decision makers and even advisors to governments. It is easy to understand how we have gotten where we are. The difficult part is working out how to improve this situation.

  • Perhaps it is a good time to sit down and think, why are the asians preferred over local Australians. They complain less, get the job done (and oftenly better), willing to do more, at very competitive salaries (common to see Asian engineers with 10 years experience paid lesser than a local graduate engineer). I am sure some of you have experience working with the chinese, they do anything for survivability. Well, I am sure alot will disagree with me, and it is a choice of life. Keep it up and see if things go the way it's supposed to be.

Autodesk – 300 X 250 (Exp Dec 31 2017)
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