Labour Force Outcomes for Engineering Graduates in Australia

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1 INTRODUCTION

Until the current financial problems started to affect engineering activities in late 2008, Australia was experiencing an acute shortage of engineering skills: companies were finding it very difficult to attract and retain engineers, both at graduate and experienced levels. These skill shortages have been blamed for cost increases and delays in engineering projects.

The Australian government responded to the skills shortages by making it easier for engineers to migrate to Australia (Birrell et al, 2001; Engineers Australia, 2008). Engineering classifications were added to the migration-on-demand-list (MODL), which means that appropriately qualified engineers could accumulate sufficient points for a skilled migration visa more easily (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2008a). In addition, the Australian government opened an opportunity for sponsored temporary migrants to fill positions that cannot be filled by any other means (type 457 visa) (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2008b). The government has also increased the number of funded places in engineering schools.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many qualified engineers, including many of those who have migrated to Australia, are not working in engineering occupations. One can legitimately ask whether Australia manages to retain sufficient numbers of engineering graduates in related occupations, and whether this lack of retention accounts for skills shortages experienced in the workplace. This research aims to investigate workforce outcomes for qualified engineers in Australia in order to understand the reported and forecast shortages of engineers in more detail. We are interested both in Australian-born and migrant engineers. Migrant engineers have been sponsored by an employer who believes their skills are valuable and so obtained a temporary visa, or they applied for permanent migration and have met government and Engineers Australia requirements. Many entered Australia at younger ages and completed part or all of their education in Australia.

In this paper we find that a large proportion of engineering graduates (around 40%, and up to 70% or more of migrants from certain regions) were not working in engineering-related occupations at the time of the 2006 Census. Gaining an Australian engineering degree does not seem to have improved employment outcomes for migrants. In some cases migrants with Australian qualifications were much less likely to be in engineering-related employment than their compatriots with foreign qualifications. These results raise significant issues for engineering educators, employers, social policy makers and the engineering profession.

1.1 Recent research on skilled migration of engineers

A recent statistical overview of the engineering profession published by Engineers Australia concluded that there is a shortage of professional engineers in Australia (Engineers Australia, 2008; King, 2008b). The report showed shortages across all disciplines and all levels, however, recent evidence showed a particular shortage of engineers at senior levels (Engineers Australia, 2008, pp. 75). A media release from Engineers Australia in early 2008 set the shortage of engineers at 20,000 (Taylor, 2008).

Since mid-2005 engineers were recognised to be in short supply by the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. To increase the number of engineers migrating to Australia the Department of Immigration placed engineering occupations on the MODL (Birrell & Healy, 2008; Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2008a, pp. 2). This categorisation enabled those with the relevant qualification to claim additional points towards the total required for eligibility for an employment visa.

In light of this shortage, which Engineers Australia (2008) reported has existed for some years, a review of Australia's engineering education focusing on the supply of engineers was conducted in 2007-2008 (King, 2008b). …