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No simple solution to supply shortage

THE shortage of engineers in Western Australia is likely to continue, judging by the commentary at WA Business News’ engineering forum.

Participants in the forum all agreed the supply of engineers in WA has failed to keep pace with rising demand.

The profession is heavily affected by boom-bust investment cycles, especially in the resources sector. In the past, interstate and overseas engineers have traditionally filled the breach, but questions have been raised about these sources.

The number of students enrolling in engineering also tends to rise when demand is strong and incomes are rising strongly.

However, there is a five-year lag between rising enrolments and an increased supply of graduates.

More fundamentally, some engineers are concerned about the number of graduates entering and staying in the profession.

“Our industry has a problem, it really does,” SKM senior associate Gil Alexander said.

“First of all, encouraging students to take up engineering is quite difficult, particularly when all the engineers want to do is become project managers.

“They want authority, to take control. They are not accountable in that sort of role whereas the engineers are.”

Mr Alexander said engineers with a few years’ experience could get other jobs with bigger pay packets, less responsibility and less accountability

He also expressed concern about the number and quality of graduates now emerging from the universities.

“We have just taken on 18 graduates in the Perth office and I must admit the amount of graduates and the selection this year was pitiful,” Mr Alexander said.

“The graduates we have were good, but fortunately we were fairly early in the market.”

Wood & Grieve director Matt Davis had a more positive view of the profession’s ability to retain graduates.

“My experience is that when you do get people into the industry, they often do stay and enjoy it,” Mr Davis said.

Perth’s isolation was seen as one of the biggest barriers to attracting more international engineers to Western Australia.

The big positives, however, were the city’s quality of life and low cost of living.

SMEC Australia manager Ashley Wright said Australia placed financial and logistical hurdles in the way of aspiring migrant engineers.

“It is far more onerous to get into Australia than it is to get into the UK,” he said.

“The UK recognised the shortage of engineers and put the profession on its critical list.

“You actually get priority [in the UK].”

Mr Wright said the process took about six months in the UK, but in Australia it took him 22 months.

He added that the financial cost was also higher in Australia than Canada or the UK.

Austconsult managing director John Foster said the language barrier was another issue that needed to be addressed.

He said problems had arisen in the past with engineers who came to Australia with limited English language skills

Consulting engineer David Porter said an issue facing the profession was the high level of accountability facing engineers at a very early stage in their career

“There is this continual threat pervading the industry of being afraid to make a mistake,” he said.

Mr Porter said the crisis in professional indemnity insurance had added to this problem.

“Even in small practices like mine, we have consciously with-drawn certain services where the insurer says; that’s a high risk,” he said.

Examples included geotechnical work, building inspections, marine engineering, site contamination and acid sulphate soils assessment.

Mr Davis agreed that the professional indemnity insurance crisis was “very real”.

At Wood & Grieve, the professional indemnity insurance premium has risen from $70,000 two years ago to $340,000 presently.

Mr Davis added onerous conditions were sometimes attached to contract tenders.

For instance, a request for proposal for the $2 million redevelopment of the Subiaco Theatre Centre called for consultants to have $10 million of PI insurance.

 

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