Taking the profession’s pulse

What are the current challenges and opportunities for Australian engineering? CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans recently gave her take in an address as the first speaker to a new online group for ACT Government engineers. Here’s an edited version of what she had to say.
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The state of the engineering profession in Australia – challenges and opportunities.” I’d like to thank ACT Chief Engineer Adrian Piani for giving me the challenge – and opportunity – of addressing you on this sweeping topic! It is an exciting and important time to be an engineer.

In recent weeks, I’ve held a series of roundtables with engineering CEOs from Government and industry titled COVID-19: Business as unusual – what they see as the pandemic’s longer-term implications, and where we at Engineers Australia could help.

These engineering leaders clearly hope to use this opportunity to create a “new normal”, not just to return to business as usual – so I will share some of their priorities.

A big one is collaboration. During COVID, industry has had greater collaboration with unions, clients, government, associations and peers. There’s been more inter-Government collaboration, as well as inter-jurisdictional collaboration, and even interdepartmental collaboration.

We also advocate for more engineers in Government at every level, including leadership and Chief Engineer roles, to enable more informed “purchasing” decisions. We have been delighted to see the ACT create the Chief Engineer role – really putting engineers at the centre of decision making.

CEOs also wanted to see more engineers in Government and private industry working together to create a shared understanding and sense of ownership. Some discussed the potential to temporarily co-locate public and private sector engineers working on the same projects.

As our CEOs commented, Australian engineers are in a fortunate position compared to other occupations – at least so far.

Our engineers working on water, power and other essentials kept delivering despite the challenges, and this following close behind the drought, bushfires and storms.

Construction sites continued. Mining kept going. Supply chains weren’t too severely affected. The great “work from home” experiment worked, and that’s something we can expect to see continue in many organisations. As well as the lifestyle and diversity benefits, time and money saved on meetings and travel could be invested in training and quality, cutting down on re-work.

Their other concerns included:

  • Pressures on staff during lockdowns included mental health; demands on parents home-schooling and working from home; younger engineers fighting for bandwidth and space in share houses.
  • Challenges associated with closed international borders leading to reduced migration causing economic challenges and prolonging payback times for infrastructure such as water or new housing developments and difficulty accessing some specialist capability.

Overall, the CEOs have been positive about how Australia has handled the crisis so far and saw an opportunity for Engineers Australia to share our pride in the essential work of engineering.

No-one would wish for COVID-19 but, at Engineers Australia, we’ve appreciated having experts respected in political decision-making, and more scientific discourse in the news – with people talking about “flattening the curve”, community transmission, infection rates and respecting the power of data.

 

Registration of engineers

Just as lives depend on medicine, lives also depend on engineering – but, unlike doctors, engineers don’t need to be registered in many parts of Australia.

Registration is not a silver bullet, but it is a vital accountability measure that can underpin public trust, and better quality and consistency in engineering services.

With the support – as shown by surveys – of both the community and the profession, Engineers Australia is working towards the registration of professional engineers. We want the approach to registration in state and territory to be as consistent as possible, enabling mutual recognition and minimising regulatory burden.

Queensland has had engineer registration for decades. Following our advocacy, and in line with expert recommendations, New South Wales and Victoria have recently legislated to introduce compulsory legislation next year. This means that registration will apply to 75% of the Australian economy, which is a major achievement for Engineers Australia in terms of our role in upholding professional standards. In the ACT, an options paper with consultation is expected in the second half of 2020.

 

STEM

Engineering underpins almost every aspect of contemporary life. It’s the profession that turns dreams into reality.

We need engineers if we are to address the wicked problems facing people and the planet and to live lives that are both sustainable and prosperous. Our future prosperity is also critically dependent on how well we innovate compared to international competitors.

There are huge opportunities for Australia, and for our future engineers.

Getting the future STEM pipeline right is an important challenge. Australia needs a scientifically literate general population as well as future engineers.

Recently, the Federal Government announced plans to cut student fees for engineering degrees. But also funding cuts to universities of almost $5,000 per engineering place. The implications are not yet clear – the question remains – will it lead to an increase in engineering students.

We also have concerns around diversity and fairness, and fears that this change might discourage engineering students from taking a double degree just when we’re looking to engineers to become more rounded professionals. A key point continuously echoed by CEO’s in my roundtables

University fees aren’t the biggest challenge we have in creating more engineers. We need to focus on schools.

We need to get children interested in primary school, keep them interested and, vitally, get more of them to take maths and physics all the way through to Year 12.

In recent years, participation and performance in science and maths has fallen at Year 12. According to the Office of the Chief Scientists, in Year 4, 54% of children like science, and 37% like maths. By Year 8, only 28% like science and 13% like maths. In Year 12, only one in 10 does advanced maths.

Engineers Australia promotes the cause directly with school students and parents as well as teachers and the designers of our school curricula. We run the STARportal database of STEM activities on behalf of the Office of the Chief Scientist as well as our own EA Junior Club. On our website, we’ve got template presentations, with embedded video, you can download if you’re ever asked to discuss about the world’s most awesome job! 

 

The engineering pipeline

When it comes to the pipeline of engineers; there are multiple factors. The challenges include the size of the pipeline, its lack of diversity and the fact that it leaks.

On our website, there’s a comprehensive report on the engineering labour market, as well as periodic reports on engineering vacancy rates.

However, as a generalisation, it’s true that Australia needs more engineers. It’s also true that many engineers, don’t have jobs in the engineering profession; some through choice, and some not.

The need for outcomes-focused engineers is even more acute. This is where government engineers like you play a key role. It starts with going beyond standard approaches and technical constraints to continuously explore how can we deliver meaningful outcomes to the community and improve our citizens’ lives.

Australia relies on, and benefits from, migration to deliver our engineering labour force. On 2016, Census figures, well over half of qualified engineers in Australia were born overseas – 58.5% - however it’s harder for migrant engineers to find work, particularly for female migrant engineers.

It’s no secret that our profession is overwhelmingly male, with only 13.6% of qualified engineers in Australia being women. Our challenge to overcome stereotypes and become a more gender diverse profession, giving us the opportunity to benefit from the brains and experiences of 100 per cent of the population.

As engineers, we’re here to serve our communities, but often national and international standards are designed using male specifications – the book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” gives a host of examples including, worryingly, crash test dummies!

The challenge is not just to attract but also retain women!

Diversity, of course, is not limited to gender, and I note our work as a founding partner of the new engineering group InterEngineer for LGBTQI+ engineers, and also our Indigenous Engineering Group.

 

Engineering skills

Australian engineers are world class. Engineers Australia accredits our university degrees under the international accords we’ve negotiated. Likewise, our Chartered credential is internationally benchmarked and recognised.

As all of you would know, engineers never stop learning.

Graduation is only the start, and that was also something that arose in our CEO sessions. How do you maintain organisational culture, and on-the-job learning when your colleagues are not sitting next to you?

In the wake of COVID-19 we have rapidly developed our online capability, including our growing EA OnDemand selection of free and low-cost videos, and a packed calendar of upcoming webinars.

We’re also currently testing Mentor Match; an online mentoring scheme for graduates.

Obviously, the world isn’t sitting still. Engineers need to keep up to date, and to develop their skills. With economic cycles that can lead to job uncertainty, and with the accelerating pace of change, learning is not only potentially vital for engineers personally, but, collectively, for Australia.

Even without new innovations, industries can better use existing technologies such as digital twins and BIM as an asset management tool, or modular construction. There’s a world of possibility in 3D printing, automation, nanotechnology, AI and all that the 4th industrial revolution has to offer.

An important comment came from one of the CEOs where they mentioned “building infrastructure takes three years, but that infrastructure needs to last for another 80”. Asset operation, management and maintenance is a critical aspect and the engineer’s job doesn’t not just stop at design and construction. Engineering is a critical component across the entire lifecycle of infrastructure, including providing initial strategic guidance.

There is a big opportunity for engineering innovation which is not just limited to delivering infrastructure. This includes using technology to reduce waste and better manage waterways, creating intelligence from digital data to prolong asset life and health and developing the smart use of integrated systems to make cities highly functioning, liveable and “smart”, to name a few.

So what skills will we need in the future? According to our research, employers report increasingly hiring for non-technical skills such as emotional intelligence, creativity and innovation, communication and interpersonal skills, teamwork, a strong work ethic and willingness to take initiative and responsibility.

Employers see a dual demand for engineering; a strong data, technology and AI focus together with more integrated, multidisciplinary and human-centred approaches.

 

Global perspective

As we look to the future of engineering, and to the opportunities and challenges facing Australia, we can’t ignore the rest of the world.

As COVID-19 has reminded us so powerfully, and painfully, we’re interconnected.

Technological progress, inventions and the wonders that undoubtedly await us as part of Industry 4.0. They will affect us globally, if unequally.

Cyber security skills and capability are vitally important, in a context where modern communities are extremely vulnerable to digital attacks on our national critical infrastructure.

Now more than ever, there is a need to “engineer our national security” and uplift Australia’s cyber engineering capability. This need is evident from recent cyber attacks and the influx of Federal Government funding of $1.3B in cyber/ digital and, additionally, NSW talking about $1.6B for the same area.

 

Working together

The greatest challenges for engineers, are also our greatest opportunities to make a real difference. The obvious example, and the most pressing one, is climate change.

One of the five themes laid out in the ACT’s Planning Strategy is to make Canberra more sustainable and resilient to climate change. Written in 2018, this strategic theme is even more relevant looking back to the Christmas 2019 fires engulfing all of Canberra in smoke. The ACT Government has set ambitious targets to make Canberra more liveable and one of its commitments is to achieve net zero greenhouse emissions by 2045. Engineers like yourselves can enable this future for fellow Canberrans.

Engineers are the custodians of society’s approach to risk. We’ve utterly transformed the safety culture in recent decades. Engineers, more than other professionals, have the skills to make the world more sustainable.

The big question is: how? I don’t know the full answer, but I do know one part. Together.

We need to work together to minimise harms, to mitigate effects, to reverse damage where possible.

There’s potential to take advantage of our renewable energy resources and scientific skills to benefit economically from a low-carbon future. You may have heard of our Chief Engineer Dr Alan Finkel’s work on hydrogen, and Ross Garnaut’s book Superpower.

No-one alone has the answer. Some of the things we’re currently working on at Engineers Australia include updates to our existing climate and energy position statements, and a detailed training course that’s under development to help individual engineers in their work. We advocate for sensible, bipartisan energy and climate policy, and our Code of Conduct also imposes sustainability requirements.

I’d like to congratulate the Chief Engineer on this initiative and all of you on being part of this group. I’m honoured to have been your first seminar speaker.

A question I’d like to leave you with: how do you want the engineering profession to look in 10 years, time – what will be different and what will be the same?