Caught short: a snapshot of Australian engineering


On Tuesday, Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb released the 200-page Health of Australian Science report.

As reported on The Conversation, Australia is doing pretty well overall despite some areas that are in dire need of help.

Arguably, one of the areas covered in the report that is of utmost importance to Australia’s future is engineering. Indeed, the lack of qualified engineers has been felt for several decades in virtually every industry, from mining and electrical to civil and mechanical engineering.

Without bold action, the shortage will get worse, and increasing competition is making skills-retention a real challenge for businesses.

Back in 2010, the shortage of engineers was flagged by the Australian National Engineering Taskforce (ANET) in its Scoping for our Future report. This report identified the areas most in need of additional engineers and provided recommendations to fill the gaps.

This article will attempt to provide a snapshot of the engineering profession in Australia by merging findings from the Health of Australian Science and Scoping for our Future reports.

Engineering at university: the numbers

Commencing enrolments in engineering undergraduate degrees increased by 22% between 2002 and 2010, while higher degree by research (HDR) enrolments in engineering remained steady in the same period.

In 2010, engineering graduates (domestic and international) comprised 986 postgraduate research students, 4,637 postgraduate coursework students, and 9,967 undergraduates.

That might sound like a lot, but these numbers fall short of what’s required. According to ANET’s figures, Australia needs an extra 70,000 experienced engineers by 2017, but only produces 6,000 domestic engineering graduates annually.

It should also be pointed out that not all areas of engineering are equal. Between 2002 and 2010, teaching of domestic, commencing undergraduate students in electrical and electronic engineering fell from 35.8% to 21.4%.

During the same period, teaching in mechanical and industrial engineering grew by 74.2%; while process/resources engineering and aerospace engineering saw an increase of 68.2% and 58.5% respectively.

Teaching in manufacturing engineering decreased by 36.1%, with a noticeable fall between 2008 and 2010. While the report does not discuss reasons behind the decrease, one might guess that recent job losses in the field (just looking at Qantas this past week) may perhaps have influenced students to choose other avenues.

The average engineering undergraduate completion rate in Australia was at 58% (over the 2005-10 period) – a remarkably low rate compared to other science fields such as health (73%) and natural and physical sciences (69%).

At the research level (HDR courses), the average completion rate over the 2005-2010 period was at 72%, the second highest average completion rate in science (just behind natural and physical sciences at 73%).

A boy’s club?

With female enrolments in engineering at just 14%, male students clearly dominate. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of male students starting engineering increased by 17%, while the number of female students increased by 10%.

The low rate of female engineers can also be found in the workplace. Engineers Australia reported in 2008 that the rate of female engineers in the workforce was around 9.5%. This figure is, of course, unacceptably low.

Attracting and retaining more women in engineering is an issue that needs addressing. Some universities have taken some action to attract and retain female engineering students, such as ANU’s Women in Technology initiative.

A global market

In 2010, international students accounted for 43% of all engineering graduates (undergraduate and postgraduate) in Australia. Between 2002 and 2010, international student enrolments in engineering increased by 81.8% - a remarkable increase.

In the workforce, skilled migrant engineers account for more than half of the supply of newly qualified engineers.

A business-driven affair

In 2008–09 gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) in Australia for all fields of research was A$27.7 billion, engineering accounted for A$10.3 billion (37%) – a large chunk.

It’s also worth noting that 88% of R&D expenditure in engineering comes from the business sector. This high rate may be due to the “applied” nature of the field, with innovation at university mostly driven by industry and market needs.

In summary

Although science as a whole may be in good health (for now), the shortage of engineers remains a major issue to be addressed.

To produce enough engineers to meet Australia’s needs, bold actions are needed - not just at university level but also at school level. School kids need to be inspired by knowledgeable and qualified teachers to take the engineering path.

Other issues around retention in the workplace also need addressing. Engineering graduates don’t necessarily end up working as engineers as their skills can be transferred to other fields (such as finance or other non-engineering related areas).

Finally, there’s the issue of the ageing engineering population. According to the 2006 census, the average age of the engineering labour force was 41.9 years (42.5 years for men and 36.6 years for women). Each year, Australia loses about 4,500 engineers to retirement but only produces 6,000 - not enough to meet the rising demand.

Unless more people pursue engineering, we may face challenging times in the near future. Why should they bother? That’s easy: an engineering degree is a ticket to a well-paid and rewarding career.