Recruiting the next generation of young engineers and scientists

Roads & Civil Works talks to ARRB’s Mike Shackleton about the next generation of infrastructure engineers and scientists, how to entice them into the industry and the challenges involved. Whether it is by foot, bike, car, bus or train, the morning commute to work is something most Australians undertake every working day.

The question of how to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’ is solved by the prevalence of reliable and safe transport and infrastructure.

The sad truth is that how this infrastructure and these transport systems are built and maintained may never be fully understood by the general public. A commuter driving to work won’t necessarily see the road they’re using as more than a just road. However, sadder still, according to Mike Shackleton, Executive Manager of ARRB Academy, young university graduates do not see beyond the face value of a road either and, more importantly, don’t see the valuable research and maintenance roles behind these roads as a viable career path.

“It doesn’t get a lot of hype – a lot of people haven’t really thought of transport or infrastructure as a serious career option,” he says.

Dr. Shackleton says that he believes there’s a gap in young scientists and engineers entering the transport and infrastructure sectors, and refers to a report from Austroads which highlights this particular issue.

In 2006, the Austroads Capability Taskforce commissioned BIS Shrapnel to provide a detailed outlook for road construction and maintenance activity for 2006 to 2015. Following the global financial crisis in 2007/2008, an updated report was commissioned for the decade to 2019 and was published in 2010.

The report, Australia and New Zealand Roads Capability Analysis 2009-2019, through its nominated capability model detailed that after the 2014/15 financial year, new skilled labour (i.e. graduates) in Australia will not be enough to meet the forecasted labour demand in the roads sector. The report found that this gap between demand for and stock of labour, in theory, may result in a capability shortfall between the 2014/15 and 2018/19 financial years.

The report also noted that the global financial crisis saw many private sector companies curtail their graduate intake programs during 2010. This, the report found, may hinder growth, particularly if careful consideration is not given to graduates as they leave university, as students considering engineering will opt for careers based on the experience of existing graduates.

Despite the report’s findings, Dr. Shackleton explains there are a lot of ways to entice young graduates to a rewarding career in the transport, roads and infrastructure sectors, particularly if the whole industry shifts its focus to said future engineers and researchers.

Part of the struggle is communicating to graduates and students that a career in transport and infrastructure is one where they can be both in the field getting things done and in the laboratory working out how they should be done. “Young people want to get out and get things done,” he says. “Very few of them think about a career in road research – they think that there’s too much of one thing.” That one thing being either predominantly lab work or field research.

Dr. Shackleton says seeing past the simple function of a road or transport reveals an innovative and open-minded industry that perfectly suits the environmentally minded engineers and scientists of tomorrow, one that doesn’t just limit a researcher to one sector of the industry.

“The next generation has greener mindsets and that’s great. We just need to let them know this is an industry which is constantly striving to be greener and more sustainable,” he says. “If you’re looking to get into an industry where you can help the environment every single day, infrastructure is one of those. You can bring about change and innovation.

“Take something like autonomous vehicles. It’s all very exciting and aligns with the values of the younger generation – smaller vehicles, fewer vehicles and greener solutions.” Additionally, the introduction of said vehicles will create the need for a whole new range of skillsets, ones that may help shape the future of Australia’s infrastructure and make the field a very exciting one to be involved in.

“What we’re trying to do at ARRB is emphasise the links between research and driving change, and we’re trying to make the link a lot clearer,” says Dr. Shackleton.

ARRB is tapping into the progressive nature of the transport and infrastructure sectors to draw young university graduates into the industry. In September, ARRB, in partnership with Roads Australia, rewarded engineering and science students from across Australia and New Zealand through its annual ARRB Student Transport Research Prize Scheme. Students from Australia and New Zealand were awarded a share in a $15,000 prize pool for presenting the most innovative ideas for road and infrastructure research projects. Students were required to draft an elevator pitch to a road agency chief executive, aimed at attracting interest in the research findings and demonstrating how they could assist the agency in achieving its goals for the road network.

One winner from each region has been announced for this year’s awards and each received $2,500 from the prize pool, with the national winner to be announced soon.

Dr. Shackleton says that the prizes are designed to recognise talented trainee researchers with the hope that this will encourage them and others to pursue a career in science, technology and engineering.

“We want to cultivate the brightest minds who can solve the complex series of challenges that come with roads and infrastructure research, and who can communicate those solutions clearly and concisely to those who will implement them,” he says.

Dr. Shackleton asserts that these types of incentives are not just about persuading engineers and science students already interested in transport and infrastructure into the sector, but it’s about showing the potential of the industry to those in other aspects of science and research.

ARRB runs a similar student prize scheme with Monash University in Victoria, the ARRB-Monash Transport Research Prize. Dr. Shackleton says the scheme encourages applicants from all faculties in the university as there is no transport problem that can be solved by a single discipline.

“A transport researcher who was working with colleagues on the design of public buildings submitted a project on pedestrian travel in a football stadium and emergency solutions. He used ants to act as people and created several scenarios showing some improved designs for emergency procedures.” Those safety features have now been implemented in some Australian stadia, adds Dr. Shackleton.

“That’s the fantastic thing about working with these students – the incentive in terms of the different kinds of ideas coming through,” he says.

“Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a really wide range of social attitudes towards transport and a lot of infrastructure-related areas.”

Dr. Shackleton explains that this is the kind of thinking ARRB wants to extract from university graduates. This not only helps them see the kind of innovative ideas you can bring to the table within transport and infrastructure, but it also shows the extensive potential for careers in the sector, even if they never saw it as a viable career path to begin with.

He says that the industry as a whole needs to start looking at alternative ways, such as these prize schemes, to draw new graduate engineers and researchers in.

Even Dr. Shackleton never intended on building a career within the roads and transport industry. “I did civil engineering – I stumbled into transport quite by accident when I was offered a cadetship at the equivalent of CSIRO,” he says.

Off the back of these prize schemes, ARRB helps the winners promote their chosen research project with the aim of garnering support to take it further. “That’s the leg-up that we give them when we promote it through Roads Australia.”

Dr. Shackleton says that it will take a concerted effort by the entire transport and infrastructure industry to tackle the challenges ahead in regards to the forecasted skills shortage, particularly in the fields of engineering and research. However, with incentives that ARRB is offering and the some of the key decisions being made in government, some promising things are happening.

“The outgoing Australian Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, recently identified transport as one of the nine national research priorities needing more focus, and the government has introduced that as a priority,” he says. “With that kind of action being taken to create a supportive environment and focus for research, that’s a good start.”

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