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Changing perceptions is key to making engineering sexy again

Engineering has never been a sexy industry. Whether it be structural, process, chemical, civil or mechanical, the stereotype is a usually a male, dressed in overalls with greasy hands building a bridge or running a manufacturing plant.

Talk to anybody in the industry and they’ll laugh because they know it’s not true. Not only can it be a varied and interesting career, but also very lucrative. Especially in the process space where AI, robotics, automation and mechatronics are coming to the fore. But a perception is a perception and that is part of the key to trying to change the way young people see engineering when it comes to their career path.

Engineers Australia Sydney president, Julie Mikhail, knows that she has an uphill battle when it comes to changing perceptions, but changing they are, she said. Albeit slowly. Not just because the association is working hard to make engineering an attractive career option, but the definition of what an engineer is has also changed.

“Up until 10 or 15 years ago you had a choice of chemical, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering,” she said. “They were your core career paths. Now you can go up to maybe 15 different disciplines of engineering to choose from. When you go out into the workforce you are not stuck in the one discipline as much as you used to be. Today, engineers are more rounded and have the soft skills, as well as technical skills that are needed to be great engineers. The role of an engineer in the workplace has definitely changed and has evolved significantly.”

However, there are a couple of worrying statistics. A recent report by Engineers Australia titled The State of the Engineering Profession 2017 shows that gender diversity is still an issue with women only making up 12.4 per cent of the engineering population. An interesting insight into the report stated that, among other things, “…young women who accept places in engineering courses…have better ATAR scores than young men. From the male-dominated courses grows a male-dominated profession, which is an unsustainable situation given our national ambitions. We need to encourage interest in engineering-related subjects from both genders equally.”

The other issue, which backs up the gender inequality statistic, is that the traditional STEM high school subjects that students need to pass in order to gain entry to do an engineering degree are falling in popularity. In 2001, almost 16 per cent of males were studying advanced maths while 11.5 per cent of females were doing the same. By 2015, the number of males had dropped to just over eight per cent, while females were at 6.2 per cent.

Similar figures could be found with Intermediate maths, physics and chemistry. In the case of physics, there has been an alarming drop off. From 25.1 per cent of males studying the subject in 2001 down to 8.8 per cent in 2015. Women have dropped from 21 per cent to 5.9 per cent. No wonder more than half the engineers in Australia come from overseas. In 2015 16,500 students started an engineering degree, while just over 20,000 permanent and temporary migrants added to the engineering skill supply. Hardly numbers that build confidence in locally grown talent.

There has been a long-term trend in Australia where the country does not graduate enough engineers from its universities. This means that is even in the boom years Australia is only graduating 50 per cent of the number of engineers it needs. When getting into a boom/bust cycle it can be quite detrimental to the pipe line of engineers that are coming through. The majority of engineers in Australia were born and educated overseas so the country has had a long-term trend of buying in expertise.

“Australia needs to continue that trend but it really needs to look at how it can grow its own pool of talent by increasing local numbers,” said Engineers Australia general manager for Sydney and Canberra, Greg Ewing.

But how can the shortfall be addressed? Ewing believes part of the problem is that engineers are their own worst enemies when it comes to promoting the profession.
“I’m not an engineer, but I have noticed that engineers are a humble profession who perhaps don’t shout their successes from the roof tops the way that they should,” he said. “The underpinning subjects of science and maths stretch a person’s mind. However, maybe the way we teach those subjects needs to be looked at because we’ve had some great scientists, mathematicians and engineers here in Australia that come up with things like Wi Fi. Maybe it’s the way we contextualise the sciences, technology and maths for young people, and how that comes across, needs to be looked at.

“Also, parents and teachers and the rest of us need to think how we use our language around engineering so that it is more positive and push the fact that it is a fantastic career to have.”

While it might sound that engineering is not in a good space when it comes to a career option, both Mikhail and Ewing are positive about the future. Engineers Australia recently went to the Riverina where a careers expo was held, and they fielded enquiries from more than 1000 young people.

The organisation’s stand was busy and there were a lot of students who understood that engineering can offer them a range of different disciplines – whether that be aeronautical, biomedical or chemical engineering as well as the traditional civil, structural and mining and resources. Mikhail said that parents are also starting to understand that such a career is not only rewarding from remuneration aspect, but also job satisfaction point of view.
“We were at a careers expo about a month ago at [Sydney’s] Knox Grammar,” said Mikhail. “Parents were coming up to me and asking me to explain what does an engineer do and what can I expect from an engineer. What does the day in the life of an engineer look like? What kind of decisions do they make? What is the pay like?”

A basic tenet of economics is supply and demand and how scarcity affects the outcomes of pricing and wages. It makes sense if engineers are thin on the ground, then a lucrative career can await.

Ewing put it best when he said, “Engineers can choose to stay at home or travel the world with their degree. It’s an all-embracing, multi-national career and the language of maths travels anywhere.”

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