28/01/2009 - 22:00

Graduates facing job market freeze

28/01/2009 - 22:00

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ENGINEERING graduates face an uncertain future as the number of potential employers and the pool of projects in the development pipeline dry up.

Graduates facing job market freeze

ENGINEERING graduates face an uncertain future as the number of potential employers and the pool of projects in the development pipeline dry up.

Considering the scale of the boom in Western Australia during the past decade, it's not surprising that starting salaries for graduate engineers have increased dramatically, as has the demand for graduates.

But this has changed as many of Perth's leading consulting engineers stop hiring recruits, at least until the economic down cycle shows signs of letting up.

Wood and Grieve Engineers director Matt Davis said his company was very wary of the future.

"We're certainly not out there trying to recruit people," Mr Davis told the WA Business News roundtable.

"If you go back six months, all parts of your business were busy and buoyant.

"Now, a couple of parts are still busy and buoyant, a couple of parts are average and a couple of parts are below average.

"But the future would seem to be indicating that you are going to have more parts of your business going into that area where they haven't got enough work."

Obviously, the demand for graduates is closely linked with the demand for consulting engineers' services.

"Any graduate who now hasn't secured a position in engineering, I think, would be really struggling," Mr Davis said.

URS director Peter Erceg said the next round of graduates currently completing studies faced some challenges of their own in light of the worsening economic situation.

"It's a very interesting time and one thing that is certain is that the most affected and the biggest losers will be our young graduates," Mr Erceg told the forum.

"The local ones especially, because they won't be hired right now.

"And those that are already on the books will be with us but they may find the change of circumstances a little more painful than the 40-year-old who have been through one or two recessions already."

However, every member of the roundtable discussion emphasised that commitments their organisation had made to recent graduates would be kept.

"We're honouring commitments we made to graduates. However, if we had six graduates turn up in our reception today, we're not interested, and I would think everyone round the table is probably in a similar situation," Mr Davis said.

"And that compares to not being able to find one last January," BG&E Engineering director Judith Uren added.

"You could not find one graduate [a year ago] and now we've got half a dozen and there are some really good grads but we don't have the work."

The large graduate pool follows a sustained period of effort from the Association of Consulting Engineers Australia and universities across the country urging talented youngsters to get into the engineering field.

ACEA national president and Parsons Brinkerhoff regional director, Paul Reed, said salary increases and other measures had made the industry more attractive.

"I think the stats will show that it (graduate numbers) has increased," Mr Reed said.

"But I think there's still more work to be done and certainly the association believes, and the industry in general believes, that you can't take the pressure off efforts to get the younger children involved in maths and sciences.

"I think we've got to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater in a short-term sense.

"Businesses have to make day-to-day decisions on their staffing numbers and who goes and who stays, but I think we've got to keep in perspective the fact that the industry will be looking for experienced people.

"I mean, changing the university entry levels is fine but that's a five-, six- even eight-year period in getting experienced engineers who are able to contribute to our company ... so it's certainly a long-term perspective."

And despite any indications of increased numbers of engineering graduates, that doesn't necessarily turn into more consultants for consulting firms.

"Yes, there's a bigger flow of graduates but not necessarily a bigger component of those graduates are coming into this industry," Mr Reed said.

"The stats show that there's a significant dropout rate of people who have degrees in engineering and related areas that actually don't come into this industry, they go off and do other things."

However, Mr Davis highlighted that some of those other avenues of employment are now closed off in light of the economic turbulence.

"I'm sure there won't be many going off to be investment bankers," Mr Davis said.

But there remains the threat that current and future graduates could be lost to other fields now that some of the lustre has worn off engineering.

ACEA (WA) division chair David Porter believes it is time to protect graduate stocks from a fading economy.

"Many of the younger staff in all our businesses have never been through a time when things have gone down or even held," Mr Porter said. "They've only seen growth and it's a bit of a culture shock, but you have to be careful if you want to keep them in the industry.

"It's not that hard, particularly when people come out with double degrees, and they say 'well, the grass looks greener on the other side' and move over.

"And while we talk about salary not being the major driver, it's a very significant driver, as is work environment, work flexibility, their work/life mix as well ... but salary is still a vey significant thing.

"They will still need to have faith that it's a long-term cycle - it comes and it goes."

The value of engineers for Australia is obvious considering the future of our country will revolve around staples such as resources and infrastructure.

And with more government-funded infrastructure projects in the pipeline to act as a stimulus for the economy, Mr Davis is positive that more engineers will be needed

"And for all the other problems that society is facing in terms of water availability and water quality and pollution and everything else, you'll need engineers to solve them," he said.

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