A boom in the engineering and technology sectors means Australian companies are looking overseas for qualified employees.
Three months ago, Australian software engineer David Jennings moved back home. He’d been away from Sydney for a decade. As well as all the things associated with moving country – finding a house; connecting the power, the phone, the Internet; getting medical insurance; shifting endless boxes of stuff – he also had to find a job.
He had last worked in Sydney during the dotcom boom of the 1990s. “Computers were seen as a meal ticket; a lot of people were qualifying,” he says. “And then the bubble burst.” In his role as technical director, Jennings recalls advertising for a graduate software developer and receiving 700 applications.
Since then, he had worked in London, initially for Yahoo, and then in film post-production. So have matters improved in the intervening years? What jobs are available for software engineers in 21st-century Sydney? And what about other engineering sectors?
The first port of call for Jennings was Australia’s largest online recruitment service, Seek. Of the 115,000 jobs advertised, he found 3,800 listed under the category of ‘engineering’ and 12,000 under ‘information and communications technology’. Of those 4,500 were in software development, but only 97 in the C++ programming language (his particular speciality). More worryingly, of the 4,500 only 104 of the advertised positions appeared to be interested in graduates; almost all employers wanted at least four-five years’ experience.
“Companies don’t want to invest the time,” says Jennings, who is perhaps fortunate to have 25 years’ experience on his CV. “They want someone who can hit the ground running. A good engineer can learn new languages and techniques fairly quickly but they want a specific match for maximum immediate productivity.”
How does this compare with his experience in the UK? “It’s tight [in the UK] as well but the main difference is a wider variety of positions. Games are quite big, as are special effects. [In Australia] the banking sector is big and telecommunications. There is a bit more of an entrepreneurial aspect [in the UK, but], here my impression is there is less of a start-up culture.”
So is this recruitment landscape true across the whole of engineering and technology in Australia? Paul Hunt of Hays Recruiting deals in building services, which he says is competitive for engineers owing to the sluggish construction industry. “There is demand in niche areas, for instance for fire safety engineers,” he says. Hays’s most recent quarterly report lists increased need for signalling engineers due to projects awarded in the rail sector, for Greenstar-accredited engineers for sustainable design, for intelligent transport systems engineers, for principal engineers to meet property-market growth and senior electrical and civil engineers.
Electrical engineer Matt Barrie is CEO of Freelancer.com, and tutors final-year electrical engineers and computer scientists at the University of Sydney in building up a new technology company. He thinks that engineering and STEM subject take-up is in decline. He points out that, according to Simon Kaplan, NICTA’s director of skills and industry transformation, the number of students studying IT in Australia has fallen by over 60 per cent in the last decade – a number backed up by a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
This, Barrie points out, is in the middle of a “boom in technology”. Two-thirds of IT graduates are from overseas, he says. The Emigration Group, which specialises in placing UK talent in Australia and New Zealand, is currently advertising for IT workers to migrate from the UK to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
In Australia, as in many of the major economies of the world, there is a “monotonic decline in enrolments in STEM since the Moon landing,” says Barrie. Half of students think engineering is “something to do with trains,” he continues.
As for job-seeker Jennings, he thinks the reason that engineering isn’t popular in the same way as say, law or medicine is because it’s not on TV: the public has little direct experience of it. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald points to a perception among students of those in IT as “nerdy” and not having “a life”. Is this a fair reflection of Jennings, when his life so far has taken in six continents and included extreme sports like high-level white water rafting, waterfall abseiling in Vietnam and hitch-hiking in Tajikistan? He says he wanted to be an engineer simply because he was interested in making things.
Marlene Kanga, a chemical engineer by training, originally arrived in Sydney with less than a hundred dollars and nowhere to stay. Today, she is chair of the Innovation Task Force and president of the Institution of Engineers Australia (or ‘Engineers Australia’). She cites a shortfall of 16,000 engineers annually – a gap filled from abroad.
“There is a critical shortage of engineers needed to solve the many problems of the world including energy, resource shortages, water security, climate change... Few people realise that almost everything they use and their man-made environments are the result of the work of engineers.”
This is echoed by a civil engineer on the ground, who declined to be identified. “In the 1700s,” he said, “engineers began to provide us with the standard of living we have today”. Designing and seeing something large-impact built, which many people are going to use, is what motivates him. Yet, this civil engineer says that his chosen career has been less fashionable in recent decades.
In the 1990s it was IT, finance in the 2000s and now it’s marketing. “Immigration supplies the gap, mostly from the sub-continent,” he says. He has had a long career in public-sector transportation, both in Australia and in the UK. How would he contrast and compare? Britain is, he feels, somewhat more bureaucratic with more administrative layers, checks, balances and reliability; whereas in Australia the approach is more individualistic with more freedom.
The main change he’s noticed since he’s been away is in the higher echelons. The current crop will be the last of the bosses who have worked their way up in the one organisation. Now, someone is brought in laterally from other organisations. “The top bosses haven’t necessarily worked in the specific field.”
Where are all the women?
Anecdotally, he hasn’t noticed much change in the number of women engineers. “Thirty years ago it was three in 25 at uni; it appears to be about the same now.” Kanga says that less than 20 per cent of engineering students are women and the number halves in work.
In 2013, Engineers Australia has 12,000 women members, representing 11.6 per cent of the total membership of 106,000. This percentage is up on 2004, when it was 9.3 per cent. “The majority of these women are young and we have only 146 women who are Fellows or Honorary Fellows,” she say. So not many women are reaching senior positions.
Kanga feels that they “leave the profession because of the tough workplace culture which is very male dominated and lack of flexibility in working hours and conditions. The likelihood of a woman leaving engineering increases with the number of children she has.
“However this need not be the case; Women are studying engineering in increasing numbers in the Middle East, Asia and Africa... For example, more than 50 per cent of engineering graduates in Kuwait are women. There is a similar percentage in Mongolia...In Malaysia, 30 per cent of chartered engineers are women.”
There is evidence (albeit scanty) to suggest that Australia could nurture a more progressive recruitment environment for women. The Professional Engineer of the Year 2011 was Dr Jane Sargison, who has cited Quentin Bryce, Australia’s current and first female governor-general, as an inspiration. Bryce struggled as a lawyer/human rights’ activist with several young children and said, “You can have it all, but not all at the same time.”
Sargison’s employer, JSA Consulting Engineers of Tasmania is that rare company: one with an equal gender balance. So too does Australia’s largest oil and gas operator Woodside, whose gender diversity strategy began last year with a more diverse employee selection panel, which included top executives.
The shortfall in enthusiastic engineers could be said to start in the classroom. Social enterprises such as Re-engineering Australia have been set up to try and entice pupils into engineering at the school level. It runs programmes in schools, mobile STEM classrooms and has stars like former Australian Formula One world chamption Alan Jones on board.
Matt Barrie believes that the education system needs completely overhauling. Students should be getting excited about building innovative products, say rocket operating systems or robots.
“In Estonia,” he points out, “seven year olds learn how to code.”
What about the strengths?
Over at the crème de la crème of engineering faculties – where entry requirements are the highest in Australia’s elite Group of Eight universities – things are going well. At the University of New South Wales in Sydney, record numbers are applying to do engineering, says dean of the engineering faculty Graham Davies: 3,400 applicants for 1,800 places.
Davies is himself a graduate from the University of Wales. From the engineering deanship of Birmingham University it was only 10,000 miles to dean of engineering at UNSW, Australia. “This is the largest faculty of engineering in the country and dwarfs anything in the UK. I have over 10,000 students with 1,000 of those being PhDs. There are 700 staff and a turnover of $200m. We have nine schools of engineering.
“Engineering has become very popular in Australia for the past five years...because of the resources boom and shipping resources to China. We have not really seen anything of the global financial crisis here in Australia.” However, he does want to raise the number of female applicants from 20 per cent to 25 per cent and has initiated a summer camp and a staff posting to this end. 90 per cent of his graduates find employment, he says.
He thinks Australia’s strengths are in mining, although it is plateauing compared with petroleum engineering, with “both solid and gaseous” being strong. Civil engineering is also thriving, according to Davies, due to building in South East Asia and the Middle East. Further, he cites the computer and software sectors as good to go into. Although, he is unconcerned if his faculty graduates don’t find employment in their field. “It’s the use of their skills as learned with us that is important... problem-solving and numeracy... We even have politicians who are engineers.”
So what other engineering sectors should job hopefuls be looking at? Engineering Australia’s Kanga feels that nanotechnology, robotics and biotechnology are areas of strength for Australia, while Sargison, who until this August was on the board of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, says that installation of renewable energies is strong, as is promoting energy efficiency.
“Along the East Coast we have seen a drop in electricity demand in recent years due to a combination of energy efficiency measures and installation of solar panels on residential properties.” But a new government coalition of the Liberal and National Parties has just been elected and one of the things they want to do is repeal Labour’s carbon tax, whereby companies like Woodside pay a substantial amount to offset their emissions.
Where the future lies
There is currently a demand for engineers to be creative in exploiting and mining oil and gas reserves, but what will Australia do when its natural resources run out?
Barrie’s research put the Australian GDP at 69 per cent services, and GDP growth is largely from mining, natural resources and agriculture. He argues that Australia needs to invest in the technology industry for the future. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “The government’s 2013 ICT workforce study found [that] a substantial increase in the domestic supply of ICT specialists will be required, as Australia competes with emerging economies for this skilled labour.”
Barrie thinks this technology drive should start at school. “To me, the most important thing Australia has to do is build a world-class technology curriculum.” To this end he has begun an online petition. He wants to see digital technologies/computer science taught as a compulsory fifth science; currently, he says, IT also includes woodwork, metalwork and cooking. He advocates Internet lessons and starting as early as possible.
“If we don’t get to kids by year 10 then it’s too late.” Woodside, a company which produces 900,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day, says that “a tight labour market” and “rising cost pressures” means the company is focusing on technology. Kanga believes future “innovations could be developed where Australia has special domain knowledge...specific to the Australian environment and way of life ...Bio medical engineering is also an area where Australia has made significant advances.” The unnamed civil engineer says that the warm climate, abundant resources and spread-out (“two people per square kilometre”) nature of Australia doesn’t necessarily encourage innovation. Richard Branson is reported to have said that Australians should be more aspirational. Sargison agrees, but has observed a change in Australia’s identity even over her lifetime, she says: “we are blessed with great weather, resources and space.
Australians are resourceful and inventive – really an outcome of our relative isolation.”
Jennings, by the way, got a job in telecommunications.