In 2021, Engineers Australia reported that job vacancies increased by 50% compared to the year before. The greatest surge was in Queensland, with a 67% increase in engineering job advertisements, followed by New South Wales and Victoria. These findings place the demand for engineers at a ten-year high.
This pressure is only set to intensify, with the National Skills Commission anticipating STEM professions to grow by 12.9% in the next five years.
So, with major infrastructure projects underway, and our increasing reliance on the engineering field, peak bodies such as Engineers Australia are calling for a systemic and strategic response.
To understand more about the engineering workforce shortage, what the future looks like and advice for graduates, we spoke to our General Manager of People & Culture, Frances Makris-Baker.
What’s driving this shortage?
From teachers to electricians to aged care workers, Australia’s skills shortage is being experienced in epic proportions across a suite of industries. Australia’s small business landscape has been upended by dire skills shortages in 2022, with decade-low unemployment rates and astronomically high job vacancy metrics.
As Frances says, “the skills shortage isn’t unique to the land development sector.”
Yet time and again, “positions such as civil and construction engineers often poll within the top five in-demand jobs in Australia,” notes Frances.
What’s behind this stubborn engineering skills shortage? The engineering workforce’s significant reliance on migrants is the primary contributor, with 58.5% of the labour force born overseas. The international border closures throughout 2020–2021 were thus detrimental to the sector, fuelling the skills shortage even further.
As Engineer Australia chief engineer Jane MacMaster says, “the impact of our border closures has been real.”
On top of this, not enough women are pursuing a career in engineering – despite girls enjoying STEM subjects at school. While the engineering field is the biggest employer of the STEM professions, it has the smallest percentage of women, with only 11.2% of the engineering workforce being female.
Combined with the challenges of sourcing domestic workers and employers not sufficiently investing in graduates, these two factors have created a talent shortage that requires a strategic and multi-faceted solution.
Here’s how to address the shortage
One key aspect of solving the engineering shortage is keeping qualified engineers in the profession. We know that approximately 60% of qualified engineers work in an engineering position in Australia. This means that a vast 40% of engineers are choosing to use their problem-solving, design and system-thinking skills elsewhere, continuing the shortage.
But what’s the antidote to low engineering retention rates? Upskilling. Through ensuring the engineering profession remains exciting, challenging and diverse, engineers are more likely to stay longer – and stay engaged.
As Frances says, “to attract and retain good talent in land development, companies must offer upskilling in all disciplines – with a variety of interesting projects to work on.”
As domestic supply challenges persist, the industry must also reconsider the viability of how its current workforce is sourced, with over 58% of Australia’s engineering workforce being migrant workers. We must strengthen the pipeline of domestically trained engineers by attracting more students to the engineering profession. Particular education emphasis must be placed on young women, as they cite “lack of familiarity with engineering” as the key reason for not pursuing this field of study. Perceptions of engineering must also change, with women regarding the field as “very male-dominated” and “too difficult”, despite women engineers reporting high job satisfaction rates.
By reframing the narrative of engineering among young students, attracting more students to the field, and upskilling current engineers, we can create a stronger domestic talent pool that skilled overseas workers complement.
The industry forecast: hope is on the horizon
While significant and systemic changes must occur to help ready the engineering industry for the future, reflecting on migration trends has Frances feeling optimistic.
“Recruitment options will increase throughout 2023 with the movement of people into the country and state of Victoria,” says Frances.
With stringent border controls eased, we’re already seeing migration levels return to – and exceed – pre-Covid levels. Australia’s population grew by 234,100 people (0.9%) in the year ending 31 March 2022, which astronomically outweighs the figures of peak COVID-19 restrictions (17,978, March 2021) and is even higher than March 2020 (107,529).
These figures are welcome news for the engineering industry, which relies on skilled migrant workers.
“It will get better,” Frances says, “But it will always be a tight market for talent.”
While the increased migration will provide a much-needed boost to Australia’s engineering force, it won’t be the sole solution. Like any systemic issue, a long-term and structural strategy is needed. By capitalising on this surge of international skilled workers while investing in and increasing our domestic talent, the engineering field will be well-equipped to deliver on demand.
Frances’ advice for engineering candidates
Despite the engineering field facing an intense shortage, ironically, candidates are simultaneously struggling to secure work.
Frances’ advice? Be open.
“It’s important to be open to starting in a different position to what you’ve studied in,” says Frances, “The more you can experience and learn about other aspects of land development, the more engaged and informed you will be about the entire process.”
This approach will also prime you to be desirable to employees down the track, as you’ll be a more well-rounded and skilled candidate.
While today’s candidates are predominantly price-driven, notes Frances, “we’re seeing a gap in the depth of experience that is needed to be effective in the short term – and also cover the cost of the hire.”
This misalignment in perceived knowledge is preventing a lot of engineers from entering or progressing in the field.
Candidates can get their foot into the professional door with greater receptiveness to different opportunities with greater success.
Are you looking to start your engineering career in a supportive yet challenging work environment? Millar Merrigan is looking for motivated engineers. Talk to us today – or see our current job vacancies.