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Engineering skill shortages are leading to overpromotions

written by Adam Thorn | October 21, 2021

The peak industry body for engineers has warned skill shortages are now so severe employees are being promoted into more senior positions than they are ready for.

Jane MacMaster, the chief engineer at Engineers Australia, said a lack of professionals caused by closed borders has become such an issue that it is now mentioned to her at “almost every meeting”.

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MacMaster made the comments in an interview for Australian Aviation’s special MRO digital magazine, published on Thursday. To find out more and subscribe, click here.

“Everyone I talk to in the industry raises pretty much exactly the same concern,” said MacMaster. “Whenever I meet a chief engineer and ask them what are the main challenges they’re facing, almost exclusively skills shortages crop up as the most important issue.

“I think delaying some projects is one implication that we’re seeing. In other areas, we’re seeing people being promoted into more senior positions, probably before they’re ready, and before they’ve had the ideal number of years of experience.”

Many industries nationwide are complaining of shortages that were exacerbated by Australia’s border closures. Prior to COVID, nearly 60 per cent of the engineering industry were migrants.

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But MacMaster also identified a lack of local talent being attributed to girls not progressing with STEM subjects at school and young women not pursuing the profession in their later years.

The latest research shows less than 6 per cent of girls nationally studied physics in year 12, with advanced maths numbers just as poor at 6.2 per cent for girls and 11.5 per cent for boys.

“We’ve got a long way to go [to] address a lack of women in engineering,” added MacMaster.

“We’re actually kicking off a big research project at the moment to really delve into and understand the factors that cause women to choose to study engineering or not. And we’re looking at males as well to understand if there are any differences.

“But because of the looming skill shortage, we want to understand what those factors are for both genders so that we can use those as levers to encourage a stronger pipeline of people studying engineering in the future. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re definitely doing some work.

“I’m also chairing a task force that is looking solely at what levers we can use to increase female participation. I think part of the reason for a lack of women is that as a profession, we still don’t answer the question, ‘What do engineers do and what is engineering?’ very well. Part of the problem is that it’s a very broad profession.

“We touch on just about all sectors and disciplines, and the number of job types within the engineering profession is also extremely broad, ranging from planning, design, test, builds, commissioning, operations, maintenance and decommissioning. Those job types are quite different.”

To read the full feature and interview, click here to subscribe to the latest issue.

4 Comments

  • William Reid

    says:

    Don’t blame the border closure, blame your vaccine mandate and your care for your staff.

  • Greg Davie

    says:

    Once again industry complaining about border closure and the impact to their skilled workforce. I do not doubt that it is a real challenge for then, however the only answer offered is to open up the border to skilled based migration. Seldom do we hear of their commitment to developing the pipeline of local talent. It appears easier or more cost effective for business to recruit in offshore skilled labour than developing the solid pipeline of local talent. Don’t become side tracked by the gender issue, focus on the broader opportunity staring you in the face and solve the challenge once and for all. A solid commitment to the youth of Australia must be your first priority.

  • Nicholas

    says:

    Intersting article, I have a niece whose boyfriend is a double specialty qualified engineer, he now works for a start up in a role that has nothing to do with engineering….

  • Paul Harvey

    says:

    An easy solution would be for Engineers Australia to recognize the knowledge, experience and intelligence of older workers who have gained and demonstrated and extensive level of skill and ability on the job over a couple of decades.

    EE grants pretty much automatic recognition to current and ex defence members based on the promotion courses they have completed while ignoring the actual skills the same personnel gain in specific postings, i.e. someone of a lower rank may well have a much higher level of engineering experience depending on which platforms and projects they worked on and who they worked with and for.

    Someone with an engineering degree is always granted precedence over someone without, even in fields where there are no undergraduate courses or programs, i.e. any systems engineering field, where almost everything has to be learned on the job, irrespective of the starting qualification.

    Unfortunately professionalization, instead of looking to recognize the 70 or 80% of knowledge learnt on the job, tends to try an up skill junior engineers and ex defence members to promote them over much more experienced paraprofessionals whose qualifications and experience aren’t recognized or assessed by Engineers Australia.

    The reason people are being promoted before they are ready is because Engineers Australia doesn’t acknowledge the skills, abilities, experience and competence of a great many paraprofessionals and non degree’d technical people, who have the required experience in the field to successfully undertake the senior roles.

    Its not that it can’t be done, it has been, i.e. a former engineering manager at ASC was able to become a Chartered Engineer because there was simply no one else in the country with his knowledge or experience, but now there seems to be a very definite lack of interest in assessing such talented people.

    It just seems wasteful to tell a qualified trades person with extensive experience, professional development, including at post graduate level, that they are not good enough to do that they have been doing for 20 plus years because the don’t have a degree and aren’t ex defence. That the only way they can get chartered status is to spend eight years part time at uni redoing things they first studied 20 plus years earlier in an advanced certificate, that is too old to be considered for credit, even though they have stayed current and further honed their skills.

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