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Caught short: a snapshot of Australian engineering

On Tuesday, Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb released the 200-page Health of Australian Science report. As reported on The Conversation, Australia is doing pretty well overall despite some areas that…

Getting the picture is one thing – developing it is quite another. AloneAlbatross

On Tuesday, Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb released the 200-page Health of Australian Science report.

As reported on The Conversation, Australia is doing pretty well overall despite some areas that are in dire need of help.

Arguably, one of the areas covered in the report that is of utmost importance to Australia’s future is engineering. Indeed, the lack of qualified engineers has been felt for several decades in virtually every industry, from mining and electrical to civil and mechanical engineering.

Without bold action, the shortage will get worse, and increasing competition is making skills-retention a real challenge for businesses.

Back in 2010, the shortage of engineers was flagged by the Australian National Engineering Taskforce (ANET) in its Scoping for our Future report. This report identified the areas most in need of additional engineers and provided recommendations to fill the gaps.

This article will attempt to provide a snapshot of the engineering profession in Australia by merging findings from the Health of Australian Science and Scoping for our Future reports.

Engineering at university: the numbers

Commencing enrolments in engineering undergraduate degrees increased by 22% between 2002 and 2010, while higher degree by research (HDR) enrolments in engineering remained steady in the same period.

In 2010, engineering graduates (domestic and international) comprised 986 postgraduate research students, 4,637 postgraduate coursework students, and 9,967 undergraduates.

That might sound like a lot, but these numbers fall short of what’s required. According to ANET’s figures, Australia needs an extra 70,000 experienced engineers by 2017, but only produces 6,000 domestic engineering graduates annually.

It should also be pointed out that not all areas of engineering are equal. Between 2002 and 2010, teaching of domestic, commencing undergraduate students in electrical and electronic engineering fell from 35.8% to 21.4%.

During the same period, teaching in mechanical and industrial engineering grew by 74.2%; while process/resources engineering and aerospace engineering saw an increase of 68.2% and 58.5% respectively.

Teaching in manufacturing engineering decreased by 36.1%, with a noticeable fall between 2008 and 2010. While the report does not discuss reasons behind the decrease, one might guess that recent job losses in the field (just looking at Qantas this past week) may perhaps have influenced students to choose other avenues.

The average engineering undergraduate completion rate in Australia was at 58% (over the 2005-10 period) – a remarkably low rate compared to other science fields such as health (73%) and natural and physical sciences (69%).

At the research level (HDR courses), the average completion rate over the 2005-2010 period was at 72%, the second highest average completion rate in science (just behind natural and physical sciences at 73%).

Teaching in engineering disciplines to domestic commencing undergraduate students. Office of the Chief Scientist

A boy’s club?

With female enrolments in engineering at just 14%, male students clearly dominate. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of male students starting engineering increased by 17%, while the number of female students increased by 10%.

The low rate of female engineers can also be found in the workplace. Engineers Australia reported in 2008 that the rate of female engineers in the workforce was around 9.5%. This figure is, of course, unacceptably low.

Attracting and retaining more women in engineering is an issue that needs addressing. Some universities have taken some action to attract and retain female engineering students, such as ANU’s Women in Technology initiative.

A global market

In 2010, international students accounted for 43% of all engineering graduates (undergraduate and postgraduate) in Australia. Between 2002 and 2010, international student enrolments in engineering increased by 81.8% - a remarkable increase.

In the workforce, skilled migrant engineers account for more than half of the supply of newly qualified engineers.

Percentage of domestic graduates and migrant engineers 2003-2008. ANET

A business-driven affair

In 2008–09 gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) in Australia for all fields of research was A$27.7 billion, engineering accounted for A$10.3 billion (37%) – a large chunk.

It’s also worth noting that 88% of R&D expenditure in engineering comes from the business sector. This high rate may be due to the “applied” nature of the field, with innovation at university mostly driven by industry and market needs.

Funding sources for science disciplines, 2006 to 2008. Office of the Chief Scientist

In summary

Although science as a whole may be in good health (for now), the shortage of engineers remains a major issue to be addressed.

To produce enough engineers to meet Australia’s needs, bold actions are needed - not just at university level but also at school level. School kids need to be inspired by knowledgeable and qualified teachers to take the engineering path.

Other issues around retention in the workplace also need addressing. Engineering graduates don’t necessarily end up working as engineers as their skills can be transferred to other fields (such as finance or other non-engineering related areas).

Finally, there’s the issue of the ageing engineering population. According to the 2006 census, the average age of the engineering labour force was 41.9 years (42.5 years for men and 36.6 years for women). Each year, Australia loses about 4,500 engineers to retirement but only produces 6,000 - not enough to meet the rising demand.

Unless more people pursue engineering, we may face challenging times in the near future. Why should they bother? That’s easy: an engineering degree is a ticket to a well-paid and rewarding career.

Join the conversation

21 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I don’t think the report mentions trade work, or makes any reference to the TAFE system. The days of white collar worker and blue collar workers are over in many companies, and these companies now expect their engineers to have had hands on experience using tools and expect their engineers and supervisor staff to have a number of tickets and qualifications.

    A supervisor cannot adequately supervise people when they have had no practical experience in what those people are doing.

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    1. Hamza Bendemra

      Researcher (Engineering) at Australian National University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale,
      Indeed, hands on work is increasingly becoming a requirement from employers.
      In terms of engineers in the workforce, and what specific challenges businesses are facing because of the shortage, I would recommend waiting for the Senate Inquiry looking at the issue due to report at the end of June (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=eet_ctte/engineering/info.htm).

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  2. Rob Crowther

    Architectural Draftsman

    I don’t have an engineering degree but I do have an engineering Diploma.

    I left the industry because I had a gutful of accountants sucking the joy out of engineering departments. I don’t know if that applies to the overall malaise.

    Next, my son is doing engineering. He wasted the first year since he had to wait for everyone to get their maths ability to a half decent level. I note there have been reports about maths being in decline in our schools for at least 10 years.

    Maybe the engineering problem starts with our schools. That is not to blame teachers as they can only work with what they have. I would be looking at politicians whose job it is to create systems that work. Maybe the solution is to get the lawyers out of parliaments and the engineers and other down to earth types in.

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    1. Hamza Bendemra

      Researcher (Engineering) at Australian National University

      In reply to Rob Crowther

      Rob, I agree with you when it comes to our school system. Producing enough engineers is a task that starts at school level, and as pointed out by another article on The Conversation (https://theconversation.edu.au/health-of-australian-science-time-to-call-in-the-doctors-of-physics-7188), the shortage in qualified science teachers is real challenge.

      There are several organisation doing some great work in this area, like "Scientists in Schools" (http://www.scientistsinschools.edu.au/), "Primary Connections" (http://www.science.org.au/primaryconnections/) and "Teach For Australia" (www.teachforaustralia.org/).

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  3. Optimistic Alex

    Garbologist

    I have to say, nonsense like this really makes me angry.

    I graduated from engineering and I can tell you, the job market for young engineers is extremely competitive.

    I tried for 12 months and got one interview. I was told they got over 75 applications and they interviewed two people - and I didn't get the job.

    But I don't feel bad, because of my mate. He graduate chemical engineering (first class honours) and then civil engineering (postgraduate, high distinction average). 12 months later he's still on the job market - and close to giving up. So why should I complain? Now I work in media...

    How about actually creating opportunities for young engineers?

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    1. Mark A Gregory

      Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University

      In reply to Optimistic Alex

      Hi Alex,
      you don't mention what field of engineering you pursued, where you have been looking for work or if you have tried to find work in other locations - such as in the boom mining communities.

      Another tip I give my students is do community work - working for a charity, church group or aid agency will get you two things: (1) a great boost to your CV and (2) the opportunity for someone at the organisation to hire you.

      Don't give up, after you get your first job you will be up and away for a great career.

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    2. Mark A Gregory

      Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University

      In reply to Mark A Gregory

      Sorry, could not continue earlier.

      I also recommend networking. Join Engineers Australia and get along to as many events as you can and talk to people. At some point you may find someone looking for an engineer and you have a chance to impress.

      Contact people you went to university with. Network: meet them for coffee, talk to them, see how their going, someone in this group might be able to introduce you to the boss at work and get you a position.

      Be prepared to travel. Apply for jobs all over Australia. You should be trying to apply for 10 or more jobs each month.

      And finally, any job is better than no job. Get a job and then work out how to find the job of your dreams.

      regards, Mark Gregory

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Optimistic Alex

      There are places in QLD someone can get a job with one telephone call and be working the next day. They can earn what is referred to as “serious money”, and they may even get a company car, free accommodation and be able to name the hours they want to work.

      Unfortunately it is not as an engineer, but as an industrial electrician, boilermaker or diesel fitter, and none of that is mentioned in the report.

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    4. Hamza Bendemra

      Researcher (Engineering) at Australian National University

      In reply to Optimistic Alex

      Alex,
      Finding a job in engineering can indeed be challenging. However, it's not due to the fact that there isn't a real shortage of engineers out there (because there is), but rather because employers are looking for very technical and specific skills when hiring engineers.
      EA reports that in 2010, the unemployment rate was 3.7% - much lower than the national average around 5.5% at the time.
      If finding a job is an issue, seek advice to improve your job hunt strategy. You can look at professional organisations like EA or APESMA. The points made by Mark Gregory are also valid.

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    5. Chris Bordignon

      Civil/Structural Graduaate Engineer

      In reply to Mark A Gregory

      Mark,

      I graduate from RMIT last year in Civil/Structural. Civil/Structural is arguably the most desired type of engineer in the country and can easily tell you that Alex is telling the truth, I spent over 6 months looking for a grad position and it is very common to hear about people who still do not have any jobs, relatively speaking I am very lucky.

      Companies do not want to invest in training up graduates becuase all they care about is the bottom line, it is as simple as that. It is cheaper…

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    6. Chris Bordignon

      Civil/Structural Graduaate Engineer

      In reply to Hamza Bendemra

      This is the problem, companies will not train their own people to fill these technical roles.

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  4. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    The best indicator of employment demand is not self interested anecdotes of employers but the graduate destination survey. These vary over time, and as Mark Gregory implied, they vary by field.

    In 2011 the number of recent graduates in full time employment as a proportion of graduates available for full time employment were:

    aeronautical engineering 75%
    chemical 73%
    civil 90%
    electrical 86%
    electronic/computer 83%
    mechanical 88%
    mining 98% (surprise!).

    Incidentally, the rate for agriculture graduates which the chief scientist has been boosting was 71% in 2011 and was a mean of 77% from 1999 to 2011.

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  5. Ben Neilson

    Marine Engineer / Farmer

    Perhaps some new entry pathways need to be explored.

    I work as a marine engineer primarily on offshore construction type vessels. I hold an Advanced Diploma (Marine Engineering), Australian Maritime Safety Authority Certificate of Competency and a great deal of industrial experience relating to machinery, structure, applied use of materials.

    I'd love to find a suitable pathway to move on to a B. Eng and possibly some project management work. It's unlikely I'll ever design much, but the B. Eng would be very helpful. The combination of a hands on background with some further education would be a great new career. Very hard to find distance ed courses that would suit.

    I expect there would be plenty of fantastic people gaining a great deal of experience in Australian work places at the moment who would be very suitable to move on as engineers if the pathway were there. A benefit for employers would be a very different entry experience from young graduates.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      There are some other universities now beginning to see the light and deciding on a merger, with the possibility of distance courses being developed.

      For example: -
      “The merger would combine the strengths of TAFE - practical skills training and job readiness - with the strengths of higher education - theoretical knowledge and links to research.”

      http://www.gladstoneobserver.com.au/story/2011/08/10/cq-university-and-tafe-combine/

      The backlash has just begun regards importing foreign workers.
      http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-05-26/unions-angry-at-move-to-allow-foreign-workers-in-mine/4034758

      I attribute so much of this skills shortage to the archaic attitude that universities have had in the past towards trades skills, and the belief that universities should produce white collar workers with only theoretical knowledge only.

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    2. Ben Neilson

      Marine Engineer / Farmer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Thanks Dale and Gavin. It's getting close to being possible to do one of those courses. I've spoken with a few people. Still seems to come down to a case by case basis though on issues like missing the few attendance requirements etc. My work schedule's pretty all over the place. These programs are also heavily web based. Doesn't work too well for me on all ships or even at home. Going to be a while before we see NBN up our way!

      I don't expect these things to be handed to me but it's…

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Ben Neilson

      Ben
      If the course is available online, then it may be available on CD if you explain your circumstances.

      My experience with distance education courses are that you will do most of the learning yourself, and you may have minimal contact with other students or with a lecturer. However this is not necessarily a problem, and you may know most of the material already. The assignments take most of the time.

      A number of correspondence courses allow you to do an AD with say 4 years study, and then allow you to get a full degree with 2 or more years of study. However a full degree of 6 or more years part time study is a long haul, and it may be best to have a break after gaining an AD, before extra study for a full degree.

      Many companies will readily employ someone with an AD and hands on experience in mechanical or electrical engineering.

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  6. Anshul Gandelf Roflcopter

    logged in via Facebook

    read it and enjoyed it. even more interesting are the comments. Hamza, you mentioned: 'Finding a job in engineering can indeed be challenging. However, it's not due to the fact that there isn't a real shortage of engineers out there (because there... is), but rather because employers are looking for very technical and specific skills when hiring engineers.' i agree with that and wonder whether there is a gap in what we are learning and what the market really expects/demands? the shortage seems contradictory if you have to boost your resume with extracurricular activities to compete and gain an edge over you peers.

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Anshul Gandelf Roflcopter

      How much should education institutions and public funds be devoted to training graduates to meet needs specific to an employer and specific to a specific time - immediately after graduation - and how much should education be for broader and longer term purposes?

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  7. Julie Telfer

    Youth Worker/Stay at home mum

    I know that this article is a year old and things change quickly but this is frustrating to read. My husband is an Engineer (Bachelor of Civil and Environmental (Honours) and Bachelor of Science (Chemistry)). He has a Diploma of Project Management and a certificate in Frontline management. On top of this he has 7 years of experience working in government. He's specialised in the water industry, in supply and quality. Has worked 'on the ground' and has been based in the office. He's working on major…

    Read more