August 3-7 marks Australian Engineering Week, a perfect opportunity to have a good, hard look at the profession.
A well-known television serial for young people recently introduced a lesbian couple into its storyline. Presenting such characters during prime-time viewing has polarised viewers as either unnecessarily confronting, or as a genuine reflection of our modern society. Either way, this kind of programming is a powerful way of influencing a target audience to think in new ways.
Much less provocative an issue for the next generation of working Australians is the skills gap that is increasingly widening in this country, in particular, in engineering. A strategy to introduce “Eddie the Engineer” as a character on these kinds of programs popular among young people could only help attract students to engineering studies at university. Even better, make it “Emily the Engineer” to encourage young women into the field.
There is little doubt the profession needs a major PR facelift, especially among young people. Engineering as a career choice has consistently lost out to law, medicine, commerce, veterinarian science and even trades like carpentry and cookery - all of which are interestingly reflected in our TV culture. Perhaps some of the reason for ignoring the poor engineer lies in the relative lack of contact engineers have with the general community compared to these other careers.
Yet industry has been crying out for qualified civil, electrical and mining engineers for years now, and is prepared to pay top salaries to get them. It is too easy to over-simplify this as an outcome of our unprecedented resources boom, led by China’s demand for raw materials to feed its manufacturing industries. Demand for engineers remains strong everywhere in Australia, despite the global financial crisis.
But there is no way that we can expect to satisfy that demand when fewer than 6,000 engineers graduate from Australian universities each year. Engineering Australia estimates we now have a shortfall of about 28,000 engineers. And it will only get worse with up to 30,000 baby-boom-aged engineers set to retire over the next decade. Compare that to China, which graduates between 250,000 to 600,000 engineers a year. The number of Australia’s engineering graduates per million lags many other OECD countries including Singapore, Korea, Japan, Finland, Denmark, Taiwan, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Norway and France.
Skilled migration offers, at best, a short-term, partial solution. Australia cannot continue to rely on migrant engineers into the future if it is to maintain any kind of competitive edge. The gap is already threatening growth in government infrastructure, delaying essential and urgent projects in water and transport, and compromising our day-to-day quality of life.
It is well documented that many secondary school students are just too scared of the hard-core maths and science subjects to consider a career in engineering. But how did they get to that point? We need to start in the early years of school to find new ways to expose students to exciting projects and show them how critical engineers are.
At universities, the demand for engineering courses is in decline and many first-year engineering places remain unfilled. There is a perception that engineering is not a lucrative career, but that is far from the truth. Engineering graduates are among the first employed and best paid of all university graduates - earning about $45,000 in their first job. So why are so few students opting for this noble profession?
Industry, universities and professional bodies must do more partnering with schools in projects that go beyond science fairs and competitions. We need more innovative problem-based learning at all levels of education, more industry placements, more scholarships, and more engineering centres for excellence. Any strategy to attract young people should also look at boosting the status of engineers and addressing the deprofessionalism of the profession, and the increased use of technicians to fill in what was previously the role of a professional engineer.
The shortage of professional engineers is not just an education problem, or an economic problem, or an industry problem. The solutions will only be found through coordination at the highest levels of government, and the involvement of all levels of education, industry, and technology.
Australian Engineering Week is one way to draw public awareness to the profession and promote engineering as a career of choice.
But in thinking outside the square a little, perhaps we could also start by introducing at least a few engineers into our popular culture.