Victoria’s Chief Engineer on the need for strong networks and the big task of having the people of Victoria as stakeholders

We caught up with Victoria’s Chief Engineer Dr Collette Burke to talk about the engineering profession and potential disruptions that could appear in the future.
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Victoria’s Chief Engineer on the need for strong networks and the big task of having the people of Victoria as stakeholders

Dr Collette Burke was appointed Victoria’s first ever Chief Engineer earlier this year, a position that will help shape the state’s drive to modernise its infrastructure and make STEM an integral part of its economy.

Dr Burke released the first Victorian State of Engineering Report this month. The report details the value of the engineering profession for Victoria and the environmental, social and economic benefits. You can read the full report on the Office of the Victorian Chief Engineer website.

We caught up with her to talk about the engineering profession and potential disruptions that could appear in the future.

You can also catch Dr Collette Burke at our latest Bendigo Regional group Graduands and Fellows Dinner later this month.

EA: What brought you into engineering in the first place, because traditionally it's been seen as a male domain. Although, I don't think so much anymore, especially considering what you've achieved. But, what brought you into engineering in the first place?

Collette: My first exposure to the engineering profession was when I was 16, some of my extended family members were working on several construction projects. I would go and spend time with them on site and was absolutely amazed with the dynamics and how each day was unlike the other. After a couple of weeks, I have my eyes fixated on the idea of working in the field, and this only grew in my final years of high school. I believe this is why I place so much importance on students being given the opportunities to gain experience in order to truly understand what kind of roles and opportunities are out there. It's very difficult to understand a career path from just reading about it.

EA: I'd like to ask you potentially a very stupid question, but I think a lot of people would have, which is the role of the Victorian Chief Engineer. What is it? What's its purpose?

Collette: My role as the Victorian Chief Engineer is to provide expert advice and support on design and engineering aspects to the Victorian Government on major infrastructure projects. The role was established by the Victorian government, due to the unprecedented level of infrastructure investment in the state over the next 3 years, with over 10 billion dollars’ worth of planned works. There is an importance placed on ensuring projects are delivered on time and on budget for the benefit of all Victorians. My role will also look at how we can raise the profile of the engineering profession to safeguard Victoria’s future growth. The role will also look at the establishment of a registration system for engineers to regulate the safety and compliance of the industry.

EA: Prior to coming into the role and now that you are in the role, are there key priorities?

Collette: The first phase of the role was settling in and breaking down the key priorities of the role, to determine the best way to achieve them strategically. There is a massive portfolio of projects in Victoria, so providing support and advice when required is an important priority. One of my other key focuses is aligning and fostering better connectivity between government, industry, and professional bodies. Looking at how we can leverage off industry, performance, new technology and capability, particularly with such significant investment in infrastructure and population growth. This will hopefully set a precedence for best practice not only for Victoria but for the rest of Australia. This level of investment and growth brings a great deal of demand on our resources, especially our engineering capacity. Priorities will include looking at linking Government and industry with the education sector to develop work experience opportunities for young people who are looking at entering the industry. It is important that undergraduates and graduates have exposure to the profession to continually spark their interest and offer a large pool of experienced engineers for Victoria’s future.

EA: And so, when you talk about resources, you're absolutely talking about human resources.

Collette: Human resources, yes. There is no doubt that there are shortages and issues in other resources, although the current and future shortage in the engineering profession will play a massive factor in the Victoria’s future growth.

EA: Absolutely. When you began to talk about the various bodies that you are actually dealing with, is the role about providing advice and support specifically to state government or local government? Or, is it equally about industry and professional bodies and others?

Collette:  The advice and support is to the government and across the project portfolio, although a key role is raising the profile of the profession and how we can attract more young people to enter the industry. Raising the profile will benefit not just the Government, but the industry, professional bodies and Victorian educational institutes. We need to forge those partnerships because each of these different entities are essential in the successful delivery, and development of our future infrastructure and cities and regions. The soul questions is, how do you bring various bodies closer together and be able to share knowledge, current and future issues and challenges to then collectively work towards providing benefits?

EA: We're connecting to something else I wanted to talk about, but it's about bringing more women into the industry. You're a living, breathing example of the success that anybody, woman or man, that anybody can find in the industry. Is there a way for you to actually promote that, to make that happen to a greater extent?

Collette: I think the appointment of the first Chief Engineering of Victoria being a woman is an important promotion itself. Interestingly, when I was younger and entered the profession, I was quite oblivious to the fact that gender was an issue. I was just so excited to be in the industry that I didn’t see being female as a barrier. I was quite fortunate that I didn't feel impacted in the early days, but as you move on in your career you realise that it's quite important to continue to develop successful initiatives and programmes around supporting, attracting more women into the engineering sector. With only 13% of women being engineer, which is extremely low, we need to continue to find ways and programmes to attract, develop and retain more young women engineers. Women are a vital proportion of our engineering industry and provide diversity in ideas, solutions and capabilities. I've always been actively advocating for women within the industry across the wide range of organisation types and different career paths I have worked in. It should be a common priority across the whole sector in raising the 13%.

EA: I wonder at the end of your two year tour of duty, are there particular outcomes that you'd like to see, that you've achieved? Are there particular measures of your own success, if you like?

Collette: Certainly, standing back and saying that I've made s difference. Creating more awareness of the importance of engineers and engineering and build a solid forward workplan for Office of Victoria Chief Engineer. Looking ahead we are moving into an era that has significant technology development and digital evolution that will change the way we deliver projects in the future which will be much different from how things are done in the past and currently. I hope to continue to work in this area and make a difference.

EA: Are there ways that engineers, do you think, can alter the way they work to better serve the state?

Collette: Currently, in the past engineers have been perceived as people in offices undertaking technical calculations or out on construction sites. The future of Victoria requires the building of precincts and whole cities that involve whole systems that are no longer built independently. We have to be bigger and broader and adopt a system engineering and collaborative approach that incorporates an understanding of impact on both the environment and communities. There is a demand of engineers to have cross-disciplinary skills within the profession, science and mathematics will only be the foundation, of which project management, communication, project management and technical skills will be required.

EA: Clearly you're experienced in senior management anyway, but this role of Victorian Chief Engineer, everybody in Victoria is a stake holder. From billion dollar business doing billion dollar jobs to mums and dads and kids walking across a bridge, everybody is a stake holder. Have you had to learn new skills along the way to develop the ability to do this job where everybody in the state is a stake holder? And is it a different challenge to running a business?

Collette: It is a different challenge and I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest people have had in this new role. I understood the appointment of the first Victorian Chief Engineer would be of interest, and particularly a female being appointed to the role as gained some additional attention, but delighted at the way people wanted to engage.

EA: And the last question, which is possibly my silliest question - is there a message from you as Victoria's Chief Engineer to engineers of Victoria?

Collette: I have a couple of things that go back to Victoria’s unprecedented amount of growth, and the perception that this will create many more jobs. We're looking at the overall increase in productivity. There's going to be a very significant emphasis on the profile of engineers and the contribution they make to Victoria’s evolution. Looking at how we continue to develop sustainably, how we will embrace and utilise technology and finally, how we will move into the future with sufficient skills to develop cities and regions of the future.