EDUCATION AND TRAINING: by Jacinta CumminsNews Weekly
Engineer shortage hurting economy
, February 18, 2006
Australia's building boom is heading towards a grinding halt because of a severe shortage of professional engineers, a Monash University study has found.Australia's building boom is heading towards a grinding halt because of a severe shortage of professional engineers, a Monash University study has found.
To fill this gap, the Federal Government has tried to recruit migrant engineers in preference to providing more HECS-funded university places for young Australians hoping to train as engineers.
These findings appear in the latest issue of People and Place
(Vol. 13, No. 4, 2005), published by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Melbourne's Monash University.Government criticised
The study's authors, Bob Birrell, John Sheridan and Virginia Rapson, have strongly criticised the Commonwealth Government for failing to anticipate the shortage of engineers, saying that former Education Minister Brendan Nelson and Prime Minister John Howard "have repeatedly asserted that there is nothing to worry about" in this situation.
Independent evidence for this acute skills shortage comes from the Migrant Occupations in Demand List (MODL), prepared by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR).
This list identifies civil engineers, mining engineers, chemical engineers and petroleum engineers as being in particularly short supply.
The Monash University study predicts that this shortage is bound to become more acute.
Australia's recent building boom has necessitated the building of additional and complex infrastructure, such as freeways and utilities, in order to service the needs of a rapidly expanding urban population.
This has created additional demand not only for civil engineers, but for electrical power engineers (a specialist sub-discipline within electrical engineering).
However, since the privatisation by Australian state governments of electricity utilities, fewer new generating plants are being built these days.
The inevitable result will be more power blackouts in the future - especially during the peak-demand periods in the summer months - and this will have grave consequences for the Australian public and for firms.
According to the Monash University study, bodies representing the engineering profession, such as Engineers Australia, have long argued that, if Australia is to be globally competitive in high value-added industries, "it must increase its investment in science and technology training".
This view has been endorsed by the Australian Academy of Sciences and the Commonwealth Government's former Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, who recently returned to his job as chief technologist with the mining giant Rio Tinto.
The Monash University study's authors have concluded that domestic undergraduate commencements in engineering have actually declined since the Coalition came to office in 1996.
Since then, HECS funding has failed to keep place with demand, which has forced many universities to grant places to full fee-paying overseas students in an attempt to balance their deteriorating budgets.
The apparent growth in higher education in Australia, especially in postgraduate engineering, has been driven mainly by overseas enrolments rather than by domestic enrolments.
The number of commencing postgraduate engineering students from overseas almost doubled between 2001 and 2003.
In addition to this, the skilled migration program has helped to augment the skills shortages in the Australian engineering profession, but, as the study points out, "this is at the expense of local access to the engineering profession".
It says: "There is a strong argument that the first obligation of the Australian Government is to provide opportunities for Australian youth to meet the skill needs of their country.
"The growing dependence on migrants is a direct consequence of the lack of expansion in Commonwealth-supported places (under HECS)."
Peter Roberts recently reported in the Australian Financial Review
that many of Australia's universities have come under financial pressure for lack of Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) funding.Funding crisis
The vice-chancellors of many prestigious universities, faced with the need to enforce drastic budget cuts, have resorted to employing business managers and companies to help solve the budget problems and funding crisis they face. (AFR
, February 6, 2006).
The study reveals that many potential migrant applicants fail to meet the credential requirements of Engineers Australia, and lack proper proficiency in the English language.
The study's authors suggest, however, that migrants trained in Australia to Australian specifications would be in a far better position to offer the skills (including English language proficiency) that employers require.
But, at the same time, the study warns that looking to overseas for a solution to Australia's engineering skills crisis is not sustainable in the long-term.
There is a limit to the number of overseas students prepared to come to Australia, complete engineering courses at their own expense and then seek permanent residence.