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News News Perverse logic behind the skills shortage

By Chris Walton, CEO, Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers.

Something odd is happening here in the boom state of WA. While historic resource developments such as Gorgon and Pluto are fuelling the entire nation’s economy. However our engineering sector struggles with a problem which can only be described as perverse.

Despite resource projects creating enormous demand for engineers, the companies developing our LNG resources in particular are being allowed to take the work to established design centres in the nth hemisphere, meaning a dramatic worsening of the pattern of under investment in Australian design Engineering . This in turn means that of the engineers we do produce many will go overseas, bizarrely, to work on Australian based projects.

So while thousands of highly skilled Australian engineers are leaving to find work overseas, our vital infrastructure sectors of road, rail, water and power generation and transmission are screaming out for more skilled engineers. It’s clear something needs to be done, and it’s also clear that with the scale of the resource projects on our doorstep we have an enormous opportunity to make up for past under-investment and develop our own engineering hub to a world class standard.

Australia has produced a workforce of professional engineers skilled to design, construct and maintain LNG developments and many, if not most of these people are located in Perth. These men and women were trained to drive the last wave of resource developments in this state. Today, in order to maintain their skills and careers they will need to get to Houston, London or Yokohama, because that’s where all the real engineering for the current West Australian LNG developments is being done.

While these Australian professionals are being forced overseas Australia is importing 50% of our engineering workforce on short term visas. That’s because we produce less than 6000 new Australian engineering graduates every year and, after a few years, most of them realise that the most rewarding and valuable work is overseas. Work such as designing West Australian oil and gas developments.

The crisis in the national engineering workforce is not new. It has been building for 20 or 30 years, but the mining boom is accentuating the problem .Now the profession, business and unions have come together in an unprecedented alliance to fix the problem, through the Australian National Engineering Taskforce (ANET). ANET has been backed by the Federal Government and will drive projects aimed at developing the engineering workforce in line with industry and community needs and ultimately to improve national productivity. The astounding thing is that while we strive to solve the problem and rebuild this vital workforce a once in a lifetime opportunity is being squandered by not having a system in place which ensures that a proportion of the work remains in WA, so WA can benefit. We’re working with one arm tied behind our back.

For example, if the Royalties for Regions scheme is ever to achieve what the State Government outlined was its goal, that of a fairer distribution of mining boom benefits then it will need local engineers to help bring concepts such as the Pilbara cities to life.

It is disingenuous of our Federal resources Minister and the State Premier say that due to free trade agreements they can do nothing to leverage our LNG lease developments to retain our engineers and rebuild our engineering skills base. Such agreements have not hindered Canadian politicians negotiating arrangements, with the same companies we are dealing with, to assist the local economy. And of course our biggest customer, China, always ensures that foreign investment comes with the obligation to contribute to domestic capacity building.

The engineering labour market is international and we need Australian engineers to get the best experience possible, wherever that is, in order to build their careers and become the best that they can be. But right now, one of the best experiences possible for existing and upcoming professional engineers is just off our coastline, in Australian territorial waters and we’re letting this work, and our engineers, go overseas.

At the moment we have dropped the ball on an opportunity that should see us rebuild our domestic engineering skills base. We should fully utilise the skills we already have, (and have paid to produce) and become an internationally competitive base for LNG design plus provide the spin off opportunities for the rest of the economy that would inevitably come. If we allow our State and Federal politicians to continue to neglect these opportunities we will suffer from increasingly poor community and economic infrastructure and will become a low skill economy and a net importer of expensive overseas engineering expertise. We must seize this opportunity and back the development of an LNG engineering hub within Australia.

This article first appeared in the West Australian.


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