Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

How to Address the Engineering Shortage

By Archie Johnston

Shaping the future of a thriving Australia means addressing the national opportunity cost by building engineering capacity.

The shortfall in engineering skill capacity has far-reaching effects on the Australian economy – constraining innovation, increasing the cost of construction and maintenance of new and existing infrastructure, and preventing the nation from realising its productivity and growth potential.

The opportunity cost to the nation of chronic engineering capability shortages is significant. The issues are several:

• Shortages: 60% of engineering enterprises confirm engineering skill shortages and 63% are having difficulty attracting experienced staff. The impacts of these gaps have meant that $2.5 billion worth of road construction work has not proceeded and the lack of scoping expertise has caused cost over-runs of up to 20% on significant $100 billion projects.

• International: Australia educates substantially more scientists than engineers whereas nations with a strong innovation culture – like Japan and Korea – educate more engineers than scientists.

• Demand: The demand for professional engineers has increased from over 230,000 in 2001 to over 350,000 in 2010, a trend also evident in para-professional and trade markets.

• Supply: In 2010 Australia graduated more than 10,000 engineers (35% international students) and more than 4000 postgraduate (coursework) and almost 1000 postgraduate (research) graduates (both categories comprised 50% international students). Over the past decade the supply of engineers has grown by more than 50% – domestic engineering university student commencements by 35% and VET commencements by 21%. Domestic university student completions increased by 10% and VET by 44% over this period.

• Challenges: Barriers to increasing undergraduate engineering enrolments include too few students studying appropriate level maths and science, negative perceptions of engineering courses and careers, and perceptions that engineering is a “hard” course.

• Diversity: The proportion of women enrolling in engineering is increasing, and is approximately 15% – topping 20% in some universities. Indigenous engineering commencements are very low, with fewer than 20 graduating each year.

There are a number of solution strategies:

• Increase engineering enrolments: Attracting students into engineering needs to be more actively promoted through a vigorous communication strategy that promotes local, national and international opportunities; articulates engineering qualifications in terms of outcomes; and makes engineering a stronger value proposition. This campaign should be directed towards potential students, parents and school career advisors and teachers. It should focus on the poor understanding of engineering opportunities; the excitement and rewards associated with challenging engineering work; and the importance of making appropriate school subject choices. The low participation rates of women and indigenous students need special attention.

• Enhance the high school curriculum: The primary and high school curriculum in mathematics and science should be enhanced by stronger links with engineering. Teacher education courses and in-service training for science, mathematics and design and technology teachers need more engineering input. Successful national engineering awareness initiatives – such as the Science and Engineering Challenge and ATSE’s STELR program – need further support and development.

• Education Innovation: Remotely Accessible Laboratories have been developed at the University of Technology, Sydney to deliver 24/7 remote web-based real-time interactive experiences with actual apparatus. This initiative shares infrastructure across Australian institutions and offers rich opportunities for universities and high schools to collaborate.

• Diversity of intake: Mid-career entry to accredited engineering qualifications through accredited Masters degrees at the professional engineer level need further development. The University of Sydney has introduced an accredited Master of Professional Engineering program that re-skills science graduates and allows engineering graduates to change their engineering discipline.

• Improved collaboration: University engineering schools and industry should collaborate more to enhance curriculum development, encourage student-centred learning, provide case studies and project-based learning and development, fine-tune graduate attribute approaches, and promote inspiring industry visits.

• Better procurement: The use of some infrastructure procurement models are adversely impacted by the shortage of engineers, and a range of measures have been proposed to ensure that procurement is delivering real value for money over the life of projects.

Professor Archie Johnston FTSE chairs the ATSE Education Forum and is Dean of Engineering and Information Technologies at The University of Sydney. He was National Chair of the Centre for Leadership and Management, Judging Panel member of the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, and Chair of the Judging Panel for the Australian Construction Achievement Awards. He was the Sir John Holland 2007 Civil Engineer of the Year and 2007 Entrepreneurial Educator of the Year of the Business and Higher Education Roundtable.