Professor Akhtar Kalam reflects on what the drought of engineers means for Australia, and has a theory as to why fewer young people are choosing engineering as a profession.

Remember that incredibly suspenseful, dramatic, funny TV show, Engineers? No, you don’t. Because it never existed. Where ER, Law and Order, Suits, Mad Men, The IT Crowd, MasterChef, Chicago Fire and Offspring portray professions in a way that is sure to boost their demand, engineers aren’t visible in mainstream entertainment.

It begs the question of the representation engineers have, and the embedded culture that can dominate and stifle innovation. The engineering fraternity is no different! What we fail to acknowledge is the issue for the next generation of working Australians and the skills gap that is increasingly widening in this country, in particular, in engineering.

Engineers are poorly represented in media, misunderstood in society, and poorly engaged within the political realm. There is little incentive for young people to engage with engineering as a profession, and those that do are unable to stay engaged due to the set up of our organisations.

What if we gave engineering the spotlight it deserves? What if we could increase the understanding of the industry and the diverse options available to engineers through better media profiling?

Who’s Eddie?

This is where ‘Eddie the Engineer’ comes in. Eddie (to be clear, Eddie is both Edward and Edwina) should be seen as a character on the types of programs popular among young people. Young people aspire to build communities and change the world but the options they are presented with through media and toys is limited. The likes of Eddie could really help attract students to engineering studies at university, and carry through to the field.

There is little doubt the profession needs a major PR facelift. Engineering as a career choice has consistently lost out to law, medicine, commerce, veterinary science and even trades like carpentry and cookery – all of which, interestingly, are reflected in our media culture.

Perhaps some of the reasons for ignoring the engineer lies in the relative lack of contact engineers have with the general community, compared to these other careers.

High demand, high salary

Popular or not, the industry has been crying out for qualified civil, electrical and mining engineers for years, and is prepared to pay top salaries to get them. Unfortunately there is no way that we can expect to satisfy that demand when fewer than 6,000 engineers graduate from Australian universities each year. The demand far exceeds its supply of graduates.

Engineers Australia – the largest and most diverse professional body for engineers here – estimates 33% growth in the past year, with almost 4000 engineering vacancies in Australia in September 2017. This gap will only widen with up to 30,000 baby boom-aged engineers set to retire over the next decade. Compare that to China, which graduates between 250,000 to 600,000 engineers each year.

The number of Australian engineering graduates per million lags well behind many other OECD countries.

Making engineering sexy

It’s well documented that many secondary-school students are just too scared of the hard-core maths and science subjects to consider a career in engineering. But how did they get to that point? In the early years of their schooling we need to find innovative ways to expose students to exciting projects and show them how critically important engineers are to our economy and way of life.

At universities, the demand for engineering courses is in decline and many first-year engineering places remain unfilled. There is a perception that engineering is not a lucrative career, but that’s far from the truth. Engineering graduates are among the first employed and best paid of all university graduates, earning an average base salary of $63,000 in their first job.

That means industry, university and professional bodies need to be more innovative in problem-based learning at all levels of education. We need to excite more industry placements, scholarships and engineering centres for excellence.

A co-ordinated approach

The shortage of professional engineers is not just a PR problem or an economic problem, nor is it solely an industry problem. The solutions will only be found through co-ordination at the highest levels of government, and the involvement of all levels of education, industry and technology.

Australian Engineering Week every August is one way to draw public awareness to the profession and promote engineering as a career of choice. But thinking outside the box a little, perhaps we could also start by introducing at least a few engineers into our popular culture, like Eddie.

Professor Akhtar Kalam is a lecturer in Electrical Engineering and Head of Engineering at Victoria University.

Professor Akhtar Kalam of the College of Engineering & Science

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