With leaner resources and fewer engineers in government roles, how can the public sector make the most of its engineering staff?
Around 30 years ago, the number of engineers employed across all three levels of government numbered around 100,000, according to industry body Engineers Australia.
This number has since dropped to 22,000, the organisation cites using 2011 census data.
A 2012 Senate Inquiry into Australia’s lack of engineering skills found the shortage of skilled engineers had resulted in poorly conceived and delivered projects from the public and private sectors, leading to cost blow outs and delays.
“In part, this is because of a decreased engineering capability in the public sector – which impacts on the quality of tender selection and indeed even on the request for tender proposal itself,” the inquiry reported.
Industry association for consulting companies in the built environment, Consult Australia submitted to the inquiry that the loss of public sector engineering expertise had increased project costs by 20 per cent.
Around this time, the Australian National Engineering Taskforce also found that it had lost a significant amount of institutional knowledge and capabilities due to the reduction in its engineering workforce.
“We struggle to remain an informed client and are desperately trying to build technical expertise in key areas that cannot be met through the private sector,” the taskforce said in the report.
“The current situation is inadequate to meet current demands, let alone provide a sustainable model to meet future demands.”
Peter McIntyre, Engineers Australia CEO, says there have been a number of major cultural shifts that have led to flow on effects for the engineering sector.
“It is partly an effect of privatisation and partly a mindset that was applied for a period of time in many of the decision-making processes,” Mr. McIntrye says.
“During this, it was believed that if the accountants and economists took control, organisations could extract extra cost efficiency by focusing on the short term. When privatisation happened, there had been significant and necessary cost and headcount reductions.
“We’ve now reached a point in time where Australian organisations are lean organisations that need long-term technical expert to advise for the long term of our infrastructure assets, especially in light of climate change.”
Engineers Australia finds in its Government as an Informed Buyer report that procurement accounts for around 25 per cent of government expenditure.
To improve on how these tenders are processed, it highlights the importance of engineers in decision-making positions to turn governments into informed buyers.
This expertise can be critical across all levels of government during an infrastructure project’s concept, design, construction and operation phases.
Mr. McIntyre says engineers sit at the heart of infrastructure developments and should be involved heavily in projects to deliver safe and reliable assets at all levels of government.
“This is true for local governments as well as they are required to build or commission assets in order to serve the community and ratepayers,” he explains.
“Engineers play key decision-making roles for these local governments, identifying what should be built and the best ways to build them. Even when outsourcing to a private company, they are vital for overseeing contract management.”
Informed specifying and optioning for infrastructure projects can discern superior methods of solving a problem at a lower cost to the community.
For example, instead of deciding to design, build and maintain a two-lane bridge, engineers have the skillset and market awareness to find alternative solutions nationally or internationally, which could be potentially cheaper and provide better long-term community benefits.
Mr. McIntyre says engineers are also well placed to mitigate the risks of runaway costs affecting councils and can reduce project scope creep.
“If a council lacks a high-level understanding about how a project should be constructed, it can be easy to enter a contract that doesn’t define some critical elements. If a builder then approaches the council halfway through construction with unforeseen problems in the design, cost and time blow outs are likely,” he says.
“Ensuring a contract is fully scoped with clear specifications from the very beginning lets all parties know what is to be delivered. Engineers provide a clear understanding of project requirements and can determine the appropriate price to tender.”
Local councils can reduce asset deployment risks when operating as an informed buyer, analysing technical information and the long-term impacts of an asset. This could be by establishing the testing required for a potential bridge asset, determining how long that bridge is expected to last, and the future costs of replacement or repair.
As engineers are highly sought after and in demand, it can be difficult for some local governments, especially those in regional areas, to attract talent.
Engineers Australia National Manager of Public Affairs Jonathan Russell told Roads & Infrastructure Magazine in June last year that while a lot of transport infrastructure work is taking place in non-metropolitan areas, organisations can have trouble finding a local workforce.
“The companies that run those projects just need to be aware of where they find those skilled engineering professionals and provide incentives for them to relocate,” Mr. Russell said.
“Skilled migrants and female engineers are also the categories of engineers most available and where there is more talent for companies to source from.
“Smart companies invest in graduates, even when conditions aren’t so good,” he said. “Yes, there is need for encouraging engineering candidates into the industry with a need for a little bit of a top-up from skilled migrants too – it’s in the national interest that we continue to invest in engineers.”
Filling the gap
To ensure governments are able to act as informed buyers, Engineers Australia has released a number of recommendations to improve procurement processes that focus on placing engineers in key decision-making positions for the procurement process.
It recommends agencies identify uncommon and specialised engineering expertise that is critical to their outputs and develop arrangements to develop potential partnerships with the private sector.
When it comes to maintaining and improving in house engineering experts, it adds that agencies should identify any remuneration gap between the public and private sector to retain employees.
Recruiting and training graduate engineers is also a key step it highlights to improve the supply of expertise in future.
Mr. McIntyre says Australia currently only graduates half of the engineers needed in Australia to be sustainable as a nation.
“We import a significant number to fill that gap, but there’s more the industry can do to help grow the profession in its entirety. We need to tell the story of the value of engineers and develop a narrative that shows how vital they are to modern life,” he explains.
“It’s more than just hard hats and pouring concrete. A significant amount of engineering work is now office-based and focused on technological innovation. Quality engineering plays a major role in improving the effectiveness of labour in local, state and federal governments.
“We as a nation have an immense amount of infrastructure, from roads to bridges to tunnels, and we need to ensure we have the right people in the right positions to keep it well designed and safe.”