Pain of the brain strain

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - By DEREK PARKER

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.’’

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