Based on some of the figures and commentary making the rounds of late, one would be excused for thinking that engineering was becoming less popular as a career choice.
Indeed, in July, data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics Australia (HILDA) survey published by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (University of Melbourne) and reported by Fairfax Media indicated that whereas 31 per cent of 45-to-54-year-old men held engineering related degrees, only 22 per cent of men within the 25-to-34-year-old cohort did so. While the number of women taking on engineering degrees was rising, according to that article, only 3.4 per cent of women who had graduated had done so through engineering.
According to that report, key leaders in business and the profession, such as Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) chief executive officer Innes Willox and Engineers Australia chief executive officer Stephen Durkin raised concern that enthusiasm for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines was waning even as the nation needed more skilled engineers to help design and build infrastructure to support a growing population. Indeed, an Ai Group survey last year found that already, employers were having considerable difficulty in recruiting workers with STEM skills.
Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that for now at least, such concerns do not appear to be justified. Indeed, Melbourne University says its total number of students enrolled in engineering courses rose by almost 50 per cent over a six-year period from 6,631 in 2009 to 10,000 in 2015, while Sydney University says it now has 5,500 enrolled within its engineering and technology courses, and that that number is ‘steadily increasing.’ Indeed, while the popularity of engineering courses had been in decline up until about 2006, Melbourne University Dean of Engineering Iven Mareels said, "since then, applications from year 12 students, offers of places by universities and acceptances of places all accelerated rapidly."
While the bulk of that growth is the result of a surge in international students – who now make up 49 per cent of all engineering students enrolled at Melbourne (up from 38 per cent in 2009) – numbers of domestic students are also up by around a quarter over that time period. Encouragingly, the proportion of female students – who now make up around 31 per cent of all engineering students at Melbourne and almost a quarter at Sydney, is growing steadily.
Academics say excitement among students about the opportunities available through engineering is growing, with 95 per cent of engineering graduates gaining international experience in their first 10 years and the profession offering transferable skills which were valued within a variety of work contexts.
“When I discuss engineering with prospective students I always say there are lots of exciting roles out there – roles that give them opportunity to have a positive impact and become leaders in their fields,” professor David Lowe, Associated Dean (Education) of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies at the University of Sydney said. “There are now more opportunities than ever before.”
“As to the opportunities in the world for engineering and IT, they are huge,” he said. “We only have to see how the world population is growing, how much new infrastructure is required, and how much work has to be done to make our economy more sustainable…to appreciate the potential for engineering and IT. Innovation or economic productivity is mainly driven by technological advances as well…one more reason to see that engineering is in high demand.
“World-wide the engineering profession is seen to be in short supply.”
Notwithstanding rising enrolments, however, there are causes for concern. Last year, Australia imported two engineers for every one that we graduate, meaning our reliance on bringing in skills from overseas is growing. Furthermore, costs associated with degrees can present a barrier for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Perhaps more worryingly, the proportion of advanced mathematics and science – key disciplines necessary for core STEM fields – has been in decline for some time and continues to fall, though the actual numbers of students studying these subjects has stabilised as a higher proportion of students go on to year 12. Between 1995 and 2007, for example, the number of students studying advanced mathematics dropped by 25 per cent. This highlights fears surrounding the quantity and quality of science and engineering graduates we will be able to churn out going forward.
For now, engineering courses are back in vogue and it appears more students, not fewer, are going into the field.
But the long-term decline in advanced mathematics remains a longer term worry.