New report finds opportunity for incoming engineers

In universities across Australia, thousands of young people are packing into lecture theatres and classrooms as they settle into their first year as engineering students.
News Image
New report finds opportunity for incoming engineers

Many of these students were lucky enough to experience Engineers Australia’s presence on campus during O-Week — some for the first time.

Engineers Australia’s student ambassadors in their Frontier shirts manned stalls and gave introductory talks to new engineering cohorts during the first few days of uni.

Students had the opportunity to sign up to Engineers Australia student membership, meet their older peers and see all the useful things they will get to experience during their studies.

From the outside, engineering courses have never looked better.

More students are choosing to study engineering than they had in previous years. The amount of students graduating with engineering degrees has almost doubled in less than two decades.

But as new data shows, overseas fee-paying students dominate student and graduate numbers. Fewer home-grown Australian students are showing interest in a career in engineering despite employment demand remaining strong.

More concerning is how quickly those number of fresh-faced students are dwindling and shows no signs of slowing.


Facing the challenges

A new report from Engineers Australia has analysed data on enrolments and graduation rates of engineering cohorts from the last 17 years 

Despite huge market changes in the past 20 years, the engineering student population has increased by nearly 98 per cent. In 2001, 58,298 students enrolled in some type of university engineering course. By 2017, this had increased to 115,231.

But with the good news, there are also trends to which the engineering industry needs to pay attention.

Here are four key trends and insights from the report that are shaping the engineering landscape.


1. Growth in numbers of Australian students commencing engineering degrees has started to slow down in recent years

The number of degree commencements for Australian students in university engineering courses has been falling for a few years and is now affecting graduation numbers.

For more than 10 years, engineering uni courses have remained popular for school leavers as enrolments in engineering courses have been growing year-on-year since 2001.

But by 2016, commencements dropped by 0.5 per cent and then another drop of nearly 2 per cent in 2017.

Even when you include overseas students, growth has averaged 4.4 per cent in the last 17 years. In the past three years, it has dropped to 4 per cent.

By the last reporting year in 2017, growth has slowed to 3 per cent, one of the smallest growth periods in almost two decades. Further drops in growth are expected in years to come.


2. Commencement rates are now flowing into completions, meaning fewer Australian students graduating

The decline of domestic commencements has now moved into course completions. Completions across all course levels fell by 0.4 per cent in 2016 and 0.9 per cent in 2017.

A record 8,162 engineering course completions were registered in 2015 (the most out of any year in the last 17 years) only to find the growth drops off in the following two years.

This drop-off rate has become even starker in post-graduate students.

Completions of post-graduate courses saw big falls in 2016 of more than 5 per cent and continued into 2017 with a drop of 1.8 per cent.

In comparison, entry-level courses only saw a 0.3 per cent drop in 2017, but falls are expected to increase as the low number of commencements flows through over the next few years.


3. Growth in women commencing and graduating in engineering shows signs of promise

While many believe women continue to remain disengaged with engineering as a career option, the report has shown that there are small levels of growth in the education space. 

The report found there was a higher than average proportion of women students commencing their engineering degrees representing a 2 per cent rise in 2017. 

Women were also more likely to stick to their engineering degrees until the end. On average, women represented 14.1 per cent of entry-level commencements, yet they represent nearly 16 per cent of completions.

It was also true for post-graduate women students with 19.1 per cent commencements with a 19.3 per cent completion rate on average.

In the past two years, there was a slight surge in commencements. Since 2001, women represented 15.3 per of engineering commencements on average. By 2017, it had risen to about 17 per cent.


4. Overseas students continue to have a big effect on the engineering education market

Migrant and overseas students are a large cohort in engineering education. In 2017 alone, just over half of all commencements in university engineering courses were by overseas fee-paying students.

Since 2001, overseas students have increased their share of entry-level commencements from 23.5 per cent to more than a third (34.3 per cent).

But the biggest change is in post-graduate commencements.

In 2001, overseas students accounted for 40.6 per cent of commencements in post-graduate engineering courses. By 2017, it had increased to nearly 75 per cent.

For master’s degrees in the same year, there were 8,101 overseas students or almost 82 per cent of the make-up of students.


What does this data tell us about university engineering education?

While the numbers of engineering students commencing and completing their degrees is encouraging, there are troubling trends that could affect the industry for years to come.

We can only begin to speculate the reasons for the emerging trends in the past 2-3 years. Some of the blame can be aimed at the boom-and-bust cycle of the mining sector, especially by the end of 2012 as engineers were starting to be laid off and few being hired in the sector.

But there are many complex factors at play that are not obvious to industry or even government.

The 2017 Engineers Australia report ‘Engineers Make Things Happen’ sought to outline the issue in the simplest terms:

“If Australia is to become an innovative nation, our engineering capability must expand. This should be done by reducing reliance on skilled migration and producing a greater number of home-grown engineers.”

While this is no easy task, Engineers Australia will continue to highlight the problems so industry and governments can avoid an engineering jobs crisis in the future.


A new Frontier for engineering students

In the past, many engineering students graduating into the workforce had many lucrative career options during the mining boom. While the mining boom is over, students still have a plethora of opportunities.

Out of the top 10 most in-demand jobs in the world, six are engineering roles. Engineers are most likely to be highly paid, with engineering salaries making the top 10 highest.

New data also shows that STEM jobs represent 75 per cent of the fastest-growing jobs with engineering and STEM roles the most likely to weather large disruptions coming about with automation.

Engineers Australia’s new student and graduate community, Frontier, represents the tip of the spear in the efforts to engage and encourage young people in engineering.

Launching in mid-2018, Frontier is now focused on understanding students’ needs in a totally unique and technologically disruptive environment.

Frontier has its own website, app, new content and closed Facebook group catering for students and grads.

As of February 2019, Frontier also launched its innovative jobs board for graduates looking to get a start in their engineering careers. The community launched a new video series highlighting talented and respected engineers to encourage young people into the field.

Frontier will also continue to have a presence on university campuses around the country through an army of volunteers and student ambassadors.

As we continue to face the big challenges in the engineering industry, Frontier is making the effort to get young people interested in the profession again. One student at a time.