Australia’s infrastructure plans, new space agency and defence projects could all be in jeopardy unless a severe shortage in the number of homegrown engineers is reversed.
That is the view of peak engineering body, Engineers Australia, which is warning Australia’s reliance on imported engineers is unsustainable.
“We’re very concerned about the lack of graduates coming through. To have a strategy where we rely so heavily on migration for our workforce is very risky,” national president Trish White said.
Engineering in Australia
- 57 per cent of engineers are born overseas
- Women make up 13 per cent of the industry
- Australia is ranked 23rd on the World Economic Forum innovation index
Of the new engineers entering the workforce in 2015, 9,850 were entry-level engineering graduates, while 16,000 were migrants on either temporary or permanent visas.
“When we’re wanting to deliver infrastructure, deliver innovation in this country, if we don’t have a supply of engineers coming out of our universities, we’re not going to be able to do that,” Ms White said.
Australia has been trying for years to reverse the decline in students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) with little success.
According to figures from Engineers Australia, only 6 per cent of girls and 11.5 per cent of boys are studying advanced maths in high school.
In 2001 the figures were 8 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.
But a program started by two young female engineers is having considerable success at getting secondary school students to consider a career in engineering and other sciences.
Power of Engineering is a not-for-profit program which offers free day-long workshops designed to show engineering, maths and science are not only fun, but creative and useful to society.
“Eighty per cent of students change their mind from a no to a yes about considering a career in engineering after our day,” co-founder Felicity Furey said.
Ms Furey was frustrated at the lack of female role models in her profession. Only 13 per cent of working engineers in Australia are women.
“I just wanted to do something. I was just so sick of talking about getting girls into engineering and that’s why I started it,” she said.
She was a rookie engineer and just 25 years old when she held her first workshop.
Since then the program, which is managed entirely by volunteer engineers in their spare time, has reached 8,000 students.
Ms Furey said high schools have reported a doubling or even tripling of students enrolled in STEM subjects in senior years after doing the workshop in years 9 and 10.
And the program is about to graduate its first alumni.
Katelinel Moores attended the first ever workshop in 2012.
At the end of this year she will graduate as a mechanical and medical engineer, having been inspired by what she saw.
“Coming out of it I was like, ‘wow, this sounds really cool, this is something that I could really do’,” she said.
Ms Furey said the key to attracting more women was showing girls that rather than being a boring profession, engineering is creative and can improve the lives of people in the community.
“I love being able to create a design and then go out into the world and think, I helped build that. I helped create that,” she said.
Ms Moores believes the problem of recruiting girls started at primary school.
“[At] primary school you think about maths and science as being a bit more masculine, which is crazy, because maths and science is great,” she said.
At the latest Power of Engineering workshop in Darwin, Cassy Gilboy, a Year 10 student at Palmerston College, was also been inspired to consider engineering.
She spent the day making robotic arms and rockets out of every day materials and worked with a young female engineer who, like her, is Aboriginal.
“I found it a lot more inspiring than I thought it was going to be,” she said.
“I found out that I really like maths and science now, and I was to see what I can get to.”
Ms White said Australia needed to get more women engineers not simply to tick boxes.
“Clearly we’re not drawing on the full talent pool for our engineering workforce, and that impacts on our ability to innovate, our ability to deliver the infrastructure, our ability to deliver the new technologies that will make people’s lives easier,” she said.