With the help of disruptive digital technologies such as robots, artificial intelligence and drones, Australia’s engineering sector will deliver billions of dollars in new infrastructure projects over the next decade.
According to the Australian Infrastructure Audit, 2018 saw the highest level of engineering work for the public sector ever recorded.
At $39 billion, government spending on engineering represented 2.1 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product over the 12-month period.
Pointing to the infrastructure boom and a growth in smart city technology, Bronwyn Evans, Engineers Australia’s new Chief Executive Officer, suggests that number is likely rise.
To support the sector and wider systems thinking uptake, Dr. Evans says she is committed to supporting the skills development of Australia’s next crop of engineers.
She adds that accelerated growth in infrastructure spending has highlighted a critical engineering skills shortage, meaning supporting the next generation is now more important than ever.
“When one starts mapping all of the big infrastructure projects in the pipeline, they will notice more skilled engineers are needed than Australia can currently provide,” Dr. Evans says.
“Responding to that requires a multi-pronged approach, including looking at how Australian universities are working to develop skills and innovation and working out how Engineers Australia can help encourage students to enter the engineering field.”
In a statement addressing the Federal Government before the 2019 election, Engineers Australia highlighted the Australian economy’s traditional reliance on the mining and agricultural sectors.
As a result of the mining boom’s collapse and a decline in onshore manufacturing, the statement suggests Australia is experiencing workforce contraction, with fewer jobs for graduates.
To counteract contraction, Dr. Evans says Australia needs to develop strategic roadmaps for the transition into a technologically based economy, with support for the skills development required to facilitate it.
While it’s a large undertaking, Dr. Evan intends to draw on her leadership experience as Chief Executive Officer of Standards Australia to emphasise the importance of engineering.
“Young people entering the workforce want the opportunity to experiment and think differently and its our job to show them that engineering is a great place to do that,” she says.
With a career spanning electrical engineering, medical engineering and infrastructure design, Dr. Evans explains that the sector is complex.
She adds that engineering needs to be understood not simply as an infrastructure or asset field, but a sector that affects all elements of societal shaping and progress.
“Engineers need to be involved in the discussion of critical areas of importance for the country, both in terms of how those areas relate to engineers and the broader challenges we face,” Dr. Evans says.
“We need to have a seat at the table in terms of policy and planning.”
According to Dr. Evans, engineers work to develop solutions that meet the needs of the present without compromising the future, such as sustainable infrastructure practices and material design.
This, she says, highlights the key role engineer’s play in developing future infrastructure and wider utility network security and sustainability.
By applying new technologies, Dr. Evans suggests engineers can shift the concept of the city from a static structure of disconnected parts to a living structure capable of change.
“Engineers are really driving those innovations. Often the invention, if you like, comes from one part of the engineering sector, while working out the implementation process comes from another,” she says.
“We don’t necessarily have all the answers in terms of how we incorporate big data, sensors and artificial intelligence, but we certainly are leading that movement.”
As another key priority, Dr. Evan says she is looking to modernise the way Engineers Australia interacts with its members.
“There are simple and practical things we can do, such as making our website easier to navigate and ensuring we work in an agile way, but we also need to think about what role Engineers Australia will play in the future of the sector,” she says.
In addition to supporting educating and up and coming engineers, Dr. Evans says Engineers Australia needs to ensure the existing workforce stays relevant and up to date with changing technological processes.
“What can Engineers Australia do to provide people with access to education for skills building and refreshment?” Dr. Evans says.
“I think that’s the really interesting, exciting challenge at the moment, and I look forward to discussing those ideas with our members.”
Another challenge, Dr. Evans says, is Australia’s lack of compulsory engineer registration.
As a stated policy position, Engineers Australia believes in developing a national engineering registration network.
According to Dr. Evans, without the assurance that engineers have the necessary skills to fulfil their job to relevant standards, community safety and consumer protection are vulnerable.
While doctors, lawyers and architects are required to register to legally carry out their work in Australia, there is no current harmonised legislation in place to prevent unqualified individuals gaining employment in the engineering sector.
Presently, just Queensland and Victoria have compulsory registration legislation in place.
“For a profession to be successful it has to be trusted, and by implementing compulsory registration, the engineering industry would demonstrate that its employees have all the right skills and qualifications,” she explains.
“We need the public to feel confident that their engineers will deliver works in a way that is ethical and fit for purpose.”
Despite these challenges, Dr. Evans says 2019 is an exciting time to be an engineer.
“As an engineer you get to have such a fantastic time being curious about the world and solving problems,” she says.
“Plus, with more younger people entering the industry, there’s always more to learn. As a senior engineer it’s important to pay attention to the next generation, because they’re the ones leading the way.”