Engineering the global war for talent

Australia is facing an engineering skills shortage.

According to research released by Engineers Australia in January 2022, the national engineering job vacancy rate increased by 50 per cent in 2021 compared to the year before. The most in-demand engineering disciplines in 2021 were civil engineers, followed by industrial, mechanical and production engineers that play an all important role in Australia’s advanced manufacturing industry.

This ten-year high demand for engineers is being exacerbated by the flow-on effects of COVID-19, such as international border closures curtailing skilled immigration, as well as an economic recovery that hinges on large-scale infrastructure projects. In addition, with initiatives such as the Modern Manufacturing Strategy, and an ever growing focus on technology and innovation in general, the need for engineers is expected to grow.

With demand for engineers outstripping supply, Trish White (Director, SlingsbyTaylor) is understandably concerned. A Chartered Engineer, Trish was Executive Strategic Advisor for WorleyParsons, working in the global resources and energy industries. That followed a career as a cabinet minister in the South Australian Government, where she led the infrastructure, transport, urban development, science and education portfolios. Having served as the National President and Board Chair of Engineers Australia for six years, Trish sits on the Executive Council of the Industry 4.0 Advanced Manufacturing Forum, and is a Director of several manufacturing organisations, including Hypersonix Launch Systems and K-TIG.

A Global War for Talent

According to Trish, “The employability of engineers is very high because their skill set is very desirable —almost half of all engineers who graduate are not employed in engineering jobs. The value of engineering used to be depth of technical knowledge. Now, it is the ability to apply many different lenses to complex systems across value chains. The modern engineer understands technology like AI and automation, as well as digitalisation techniques, and game changing use of data right across the seven steps of manufacturing smiley curve.”

Every year, Germany graduates three times the proportion of engineers that we do in Australia—just 8.9% of all Australian university graduates are engineers. This makes Australia one of the lowest producers of engineers in the OECD. This is compounded by an extremely low proportion of females in the industry, at around 11%. And, the situation is forecast to worsen.

“The difficulty is that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic and associated international border closures, approximately 60% of all working engineers in Australia were born overseas. We simply do not graduate enough engineers to meet our needs. And now, post-COVID, the global war for talent has become more fierce,” said Trish.

“Over the next five years, the demand in engineering skills is predicated to outpace our population growth by 1.63 times.”

Engineering Skills: Critical to the Energy Transition

“Some of Australia’s largest engineering skills shortages are in those areas critical to the energy transition. As a nation, we have billions of export dollars at risk if we cannot decarbonise industries associated with products like iron, steel, aluminium, cement and lime within the timeframe that our customers have set for net zero emissions targets. We need a huge number of skilled engineers working on solutions to integrate cleaner energy into these productions processes.”

“The training of a professional engineer takes 10 years, including university study and then supervised practice. There is no short-term fix in terms of graduating new engineers. And, we simply cannot wait to plug the ever-widening skills gap. The pace at which we have to meet the sustainability drive, the pace at which we have to transition to clean energy systems, the pace at which we have to grow our economy, mean that the demand for engineering skills will only escalate,” said Trish.

The Way Forward

While Australia’s recent reopening of international borders could see a welcome increase in the existing engineering workforce, a more holistic, strategic solution is needed.

“More targeted migration policies can have a huge impact. Strengthening Australia’s future engineering skill supply will require strategic, coordinated government policy. Up until the end of last year, most categories of engineering were not included on the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List. We simply cannot wait 10 years for the next cohort of Australian engineers to qualify; this approach will not fix the problem at pace. It is a race.”

“We have to look at professionals who already possess the skills and capabilities close to those required by industry and train them into the vacant roles. The higher apprenticeship model is a good approach. Attracting and retaining more female engineers is a good approach. However, given the skills shortages that Australia is experiencing right throughout the economy, it is going to be a long and difficult process,” said Trish.

Programs that encourage an interest in STEM skills from an early age, and attract high school students into the engineering profession are also essential in creating a pipeline of skills supply. Teachers, parents, careers advisors and students all need an understanding of the depth and breadth of opportunities available to engineers. Industry programs that foster engineers, helping to retain professionals within the industry are just as important, particularly given the demand for their skill set across a whole range of sectors.