If the value of Australia’s next 10,000 engineers is gold, then the quality of the next 10,000 must be platinum.

There is huge upheaval going on across Australia’s institutions and governments. Much of this is aimed at doing what should have been done long ago: getting rid of waste, duplication and red-tape.

The bottom line is that Australia must achieve more for less from organisations who have become intransigent and unproductive, but we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a critical time to focus on what’s important.

What Australia can’t afford to have less of is engineering innovation, effectiveness and certainty.

Looking Back

Great engineers and scientists have been the backbone of most great achievements in just over 200 years of European settlement in Australia. Australia and New Zealand are internationally acknowledged for having built extraordinary amounts of public infrastructure for amongst the lowest cost per capita in the developed world.

Considering the expanse of Australia, the sheer scale of our achievements in roads, rail, ports, water and energy supplies, our mining, bridges, medical equipment, agriculture, science, military, aviation, computing and so on the legacy is truly impressive. All of this was achieved by high quality educated, industrious and innovative engineers.

My construction career has been inspired by great names in engineering such as Holland, Hornibrook, Thiess, Arup and Hudson. At a working level, I have been made confident on projects that I have worked on by lesser known engineers such as Farrell on Australia’s New Parliament, Wargon on Centerpoint Tower and Macleod on many lesser but equally important buildings which dominate and underpin confidence in the public realm Australians mostly take for granted.

Australian engineers have punched way beyond their weight here and internationally.

They have also led some of the world’s biggest companies such as Ford, BHP and Rio Tinto, and they continue to lead today through companies such as Cochlea.

Australia’s CSIRO has always been at the forefront of innovations that have not always been commercialised here but have gone on to help redefine the world we all live in today. It’s highly educated, concerned and driven leaders who have made the difference. Without engineers, Australia would be a lesser place.

But as the old song goes, “there’s a hole in the bucket dear Henry, dear Henry, a hole.”

A Quick Snapshot of the hole

I believe there is a growing correlation between the numbers of Australia’s working engineers and new engineering graduates and construction’s declining contribution to national GDP.  Our domestic construction and engineering industry is suffering as a result.

Last year, I reported on the declining status of engineering and the quality of engineering graduates in Australia. Here is a snapshot of some of the feedback I got from some of Australia’s engineering leaders I interviewed:

  • Consultant Engineer – “This year’s graduate intake is the weakest we have seen. We asked the graduates about this and they claimed that their engineering courses had been dumbed down by universities scrambling to attract overseas full fee paying students. Some claimed that they spent half their course time helping students trying to learn English, with their assignments.”
  • Equipment Manufacturer – “We only keep our engineering design operations in Australia because of the current crop of experienced high quality engineers. We do not see a similar cohort coming behind them. If this continues we will move the balance of our manufacturing operations offshore, hire in the best internationally and fully import our local product.
  • Steel Fabricator – “Most of our fabricated structural steel is imported from China these days. We have more of our experienced production management engineers in China coordinating our orders and doing QA before steel is shipped back to Australia. We are not investing in many new cadets or apprentices because we do less production here and cannot offer continuity of work experience. Where the next generation of experienced production engineers will come from – who knows?”
  • University Academic – “We have lost relevance with the industry because courses have lost rigour and value-add to industry. Once the best Australian graduates could be fast tracked into enterprise and become productive quickly. Our research programs have been underfunded for so long we find ourselves accepting some assignments we are not entirely comfortable with. Business can just go and hire what they want internationally.”

Here is a global snapshot of which countries are making engineering and science a centrepiece of their futures:

engineering graduates

Engineers Australia’s 2012 Statistical Overview of the Australian engineering profession reported:

  • In 2006, there were 245,631 people in Australia with engineering qualifications, but only 200,615 were actively engaged with the labour market
  • Only 58.9 per cent of engineers worked in engineering
  • The average age of engineers was 43.2 years
  • Of those working in engineering: 40 per cent worked in consulting, nine per cent in public administration, seven per cent in construction and six per cent in transport and associated activities
  • Of those studying engineering and related technologies in 2010, 57,901 were domestic students and 27,447 were from overseas  (many of whom likely had English as a second language)
  • Year 12 participation in advanced mathematics in Australia has fallen to 10 per cent, in chemistry the participation rate was only 18 per cent and in physics it was down to approximately 14.5 per cent.

Since publishing my observations on engineering in Australia, my attention was drawn to what is happening in engineering in India. The construction sector is the second largest industry in India, employing in excess of 32 million people – a number expected to grow to 92 million by 2022. India is expected to be the third largest construction market by then.

An Australian entrepreneur I spoke to who has moved most of his Health sector IP business to the UAE over the last 10 years commented that the quality of engineer coming from India these days is world class.

“They are extremely well educated and only the best get through, it’s very competitive amongst graduates,” he said.

They are leaders in engineering, computer technology, robotics and industrialised construction. More importantly, he pointed to the number of global companies that are now being headed up by Indian Chief Executives, including Microsoft.

I believe high quality engineers will be central to addressing Australia’s declining construction contribution to GDP, improving the productivity performance of construction and engineering and leading investment in new innovations for advanced materials and project delivery systems.

Looking forward, Australia cannot afford to move into a 10-year education hiatus. We cannot afford to create uncertainty for a potential cohort of engineers that will be vital to our future prosperity and sustainability as a nation. We cannot afford to create a condition where the best candidates for a high quality engineering future get attracted to other markets more favourable and opportune than our own. Global competition is fine, but not for the future seed of our economy and society.

Letting the cost of university and tertiary education loose is unlikely to deliver any return to Australia in the short term and certainly not over the long term. If universities are to compete on price, then expect the quality of engineering to meet the market. If engineering education is to become a global commodity, just reflect on the comments of the executives and academics I have spoken too. You only get back what you pay for.

Creating engineering graduates of world class standing who lead this field of endeavour for decades to come must be an Australia national priority. Otherwise, there will be fewer making the Engineering Top 100 and Icons lists of tomorrow.

If the next generation of Australian engineers becomes agnostic as to where they do their first of second degrees they will remain agnostic as to where they develop their careers and lifelong endeavours.

So here is what we should be doing, for a start:

  1. Assemble a credible representation of education authorities, universities, CSIRO, technical colleges, Year 11 and 12 students, undergraduates, researchers, tradespeople, unions and professionals for a convention to discuss and develop a better insight into future work and the research endeavours that will help support revitalising Australian engineering.
  2. As a priority, accelerate the attraction of the best new students into engineering of all disciplines with a goal of tripling the graduations at both undergraduate and post graduate levels within 10 years. Put money incentives on the table; it’s that important.
  3. Expose the very best emerging engineers to the most challenging enterprises both domestically and internationally. Publicly report of progress being made. Leverage the most successful graduates to help attract high quality future Australian and regional students to undertake their studies in Australia and live here.
  4. Explore mechanisms to attract qualified engineers who are not part of the workforce to re-engage. Use these engineers to mentor and help accelerate the career trajectories of high achieving up and comers.

What Australia should not be doing is creating uncertainty or diminishing the importance of investing in the highest quality education for Australia’s next 10,000 engineering graduates. What we should not lose sight of is that the next 10,000 engineering graduates after these need to be educated to an even higher standard in order to take Australia’s engineering abilities to another level.

Given the scale of revitalising Australia’s ageing infrastructure and the development of new capacity over the next 20 years, we stand at day one of a challenging time ahead. This is not the time to shirk on the investment needed.

And Henry, it’s time to fix the hole in the bucket, because it’s all starting to leak out faster.