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Australia’s looming engineering skills crisis

Dr Kourosh Kayvani, Global Director of Excellence and Expertise

Dr Kourosh Kayvani, Global Director of Excellence and Expertise

30 March 2017 - In late March, global engineering and infrastructure advisory firm Aurecon’s Dr Kourosh Kayvani, Global Director of Excellence and Expertise, was invited to be the industry voice on an Engineers Australia panel, representing Aurecon as a major recruiter of global engineering talent.

Attended by over 100 senior decision-makers from public, private and non-government organisations, the event launched Engineers Australia’s latest research on the fast approaching skills shortage about to hit the Australian engineering profession.

The ensuing panel discussion with some of Australia’s leading educators and a senior level, engaged audience quickly hit the airwaves and social media.

Drawing on the latest data on skilled migration, school Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) studies and the transitions to universities, the report highlighted some alarming STEM statistics, and what this might mean for Australia’s ambition of becoming an innovative and globally competitive nation.

The data drew attention to how universities are currently struggling to attract enough male and female talent with the right STEM background, with Australia increasingly relying on migration to build its engineering workforce.

The report is part of a focused push by the engineering profession and Aurecon’s own leaders to educate our policy makers and educators about the role and importance of the engineer and designer across a wide range of pressing public policy issues.

Engineers are a critical resource if we are to manage effectively the enormous investment in infrastructure we have made in Australia, including the role of infra-technology and digitisation, as well as the need to redesign Australia’s energy systems, and to exploit the opportunities that may arise from the reinvigorated defence industry.

Kourosh Kayvani with other panel membersAurecon’s Dr Kayvani reminded the audience that demand for engineering talent and designers able to use cross disciplinary skills was also on the increase from the private sector, driven by digital disruption, the advent of smarter transport systems, intelligent road networks, intelligent buildings, and the increasing use of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence across manufacturing and construction.

Asked about the impact on the built environment, Dr Kayvani said it was crucial for engineers to advise governments on strategic level infrastructure policy decisions or risk unseen issues arising from the fast changing digital or energy landscape.

“Australia’s massive mining, energy and resources industries, and their extensive transport systems are in the process of responding to fast changing innovations with the arrival of drones, 3D virtual reality tools and autonomous vehicles.

“These challenges are changing the types of skills employers like Aurecon are looking for, and have led Aurecon to develop its own, in-house post-graduate training for its people, called the Aurecon Design Academy, in partnership with universities such as UTS and RMIT,” explained Dr Kayvani, who is himself a Visiting Professorial Fellow at UNSW and an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney. 

Universities understand very well that their responsibility for training the workforce of the future means they must be ready for constant change.

“Tomorrow’s engineers will increasingly have access to machine learning, automation and a global pool of expertise, making it imperative that they are able to go up the value chain,” said Dr Kayvani.

“In the past, training followed a cookie cutter approach towards problem solving, involving predefined problems and logical solutions. Instead, we now need to look at how we frame these challenges, which are increasingly unpredictable and globalised, involving solutions across multiple disciplines and multiple facets,” he said. Dr Kayvani further highlighted the importance of diversity of discipline, gender, age and culture within teams as an enabler of accessing (stimulating) the diverse thinking needed to unlock forward-thinking solutions to some of today’s biggest challenges.

Pitch for a better nationPanel member Professor John Wilson of Swinburne University of Technology and the incoming President of the Council of Engineering Deans, representing 35 schools of engineering that graduate around 10 000 engineers per annum, commented: “We are aware of the demand for change and are introducing new models of teaching engineering. Studio-based leaning and internships are on the horizon.

“All four panel members reinforced the importance of closer cooperation between industry, schools, and universities through partnerships and internships. Working with industry partners allows hands-on experience and exposure to these challenges of the future, so necessary to avoid students being left behind.”

The two panel members representing the teaching of STEM in schools – Phil A’Damo who runs the Victorian Government’s Tech Schools initiative and Veena Near who represents STEM teachers – focused on the importance of engaging and inspiring children at grass roots level with the dream of engineering.

They said that this meant providing opportunities for children to take on the role of problem solvers for their own communities. Participating in studio-based learning, national competitions such as Aurecon’s School Bridge Building Competition or solving community problems is more likely to stimulate students to take up engineering related subjects.

The report shows that fewer and fewer young people are studying advanced science and maths subjects needed for jobs such as engineering and outlines the urgent need to reverse the trend and train more engineers in Australia.

The panel called on the Government to focus on developing an engineering pipeline strategy that extends beyond a national STEM school education strategy, incorporating industry and population policies, as well as an education policy at all levels including primary, secondary and tertiary.

In summing up, Engineers Australia’s Victorian Division President Chris Stoltz warned that Australia faces the real risk of having to offshore its engineering needs, and becoming a consumer of new technology rather than a producer.

The report also recommended the overhaul of the skilled migration process to ensure migrant engineers, who currently represent 57% of engineers working in Australia, have the right skills to match the country’s engineering areas of needs, such as in emerging technology.

“Practically all goods and services consumed or used in production embodies engineering, yet we continue to drop down the world’s innovation indices as we struggle as a nation to build our engineering capability,” said Stoltz.

Key findings: See summary report

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