Pain of the brain strain
THE economic boom of the past decade has led to labour shortages across the economy, but nowhere has the problem been felt more acutely than in engineering. The problem is not the university education system or the technical training system, both of which are widely seen as among the best in the world. Nor is it tied to the training and professional development provided by the employers of engineering graduates, which is relevant and comprehensive.
The core of the shortfall is that there are simply not enough young people interested in going into the engineering profession.
You see the strain of shortages everywhere you look,’’ says Peter Taylor, chief executive of Engineers Australia, the peak representative body for the profession.
It is being felt most painfully in the resources and infrastructure fields but there are shortages in other engineering disciplines as well. The defence sector is also feeling it - the Navy recently said that it had 700 technical positions to fill, and the other services are in comparable positions.
If you extrapolate from a survey we did in 2006 of 200 major employers of professional engineers, you come up with a figure of over 20,000 vacancies nationwide. It’s a very rough calculation, but it suggests the extent of the problem.’’
Last year, Australian universities produced about 5500 domestic engineering graduates. This is, in fact, a slight increase in the numbers of previous years, but remains well below what is required for the continued health of the economy.
Mr Taylor sees the roots of the problem as going much deeper than the university sector, pointing to secondary and primary education as well as broader social changes.
We have seen a long- term shift away from interest in fields such as science and maths,’’ he says.
A lot of kids start moving away from maths in particular in the middle years of primary school. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough teachers with expertise and interest in those fields to fire them up about it, to identify kids with promise and guide them along the path to develop their potential.
The teacher shortage means that many teachers have to work in subjects that don’t really interest them, so you can’t blame the teachers for not motivating others.
Without that basic grounding, in secondary school interest wanes even further. Regrettably, there have been cases of teachers and counsellors steering students away from maths and science, especially the more advanced aspects, because the subjects are seen as difficult to get a good score for university entrance.
The number of Year 12 students undertaking advanced maths, the most important enabling subject for an engineering degree, fell from 14 per cent in 1995 to below 12 per cent in 2004, and it’s still going down. Of the students who enrol in engineering at university, between 40 and 50 per cent fail to graduate, either dropping out entirely or switching to another course.’’
Mr Taylor notes that similar patterns have been seen in North America and western Europe. Engineering remains extremely popular as a career choice in developing countries, but the fundamental pattern appears to be that it is seen as progressively less appealing as a society becomes wealthier.
In fact, two- thirds as many foreign students, mainly from developing countries, graduate in engineering from Australian universities as Australian- based ones.
Mr Taylor believes that a proportion of foreign- based graduates might return to Australia later in their careers, but the number will not be large.
Skilled immigration is important, and the quality of people coming in is quite high,’’ he says. Engineers Australia does a lot of assessment work on the behalf of the Commonwealth government to evaluate the level skills, and we understand importance of qualified migrants.
But in terms of numbers, it’s not a solution. At best, it’s a stop- gap, especially as we have to compete with countries that are willing to offer a lot more money.’’
Of course, shortages have clear benefits from the perspective of graduates. Salaries in the engineering sector increased by an average of 8.7 per cent last year, and there is no sign of any reversal.
In 2007, starting salaries for new graduates were about $ 52,000, plus non- salary benefits of around $ 10,000.
A graduate engineer who is willing to work in a remote area can realistically expect a package of around $ 100,000.
There are plenty of stories of graduates turning up for their first job interview and asking: why should I come to work for you?’’ Mr Taylor says.
Employers have had to lift their game to get good people - or any graduate at all, really. The larger employers have active recruitment programs on university campuses and at technical colleges, and make a point of setting out a path of professional development.
Engineering carries with it a whole- of- life learning obligation. Companies offering professional development programs gain an advantage over others in both recruitment and retention of staff.’’
As a professional association, Engineers Australia has also been active in encouraging technicians and technologists to gain higherlevel competencies to enable them to advance to professional engineer.
But in the end, offering higher salaries and providing good career paths are not going to solve the structural issue.’’ Mr Taylor says.
We need to get more people interested in the profession in the first place.’’
Engineers Australia recently completed a major research study of the area, as the basis for an education campaign aimed at students, teachers, and career advisers. The campaign will last for a further two years and will cost $ 2.5 million.
Mr Taylor says: We see it as essential to get the message out to people at every level, about the opportunities that the engineering profession offers, both in terms of personal fulfilment and broad social benefit. Too many misconceptions have developed, and we want to ensure that people have the facts to make an informed decision.
This is not something that will be solved overnight. The lead times are long and matching supply with demand is a complex undertaking. But we need to start now.’’