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Australian mechanical engineering faces skills shortage problems

By: Stephanie McDonald
28 February, 2011

Mechanical engineering encompasses a broad church, from the design of air-conditioning systems and their installation to automotive materials handling and machinery design, but despite the rosy outlook for job seekers, for the companies doing the hiring it isn’t all good news.

Like many engineering sectors, mechanical engineering is currently undergoing a skills shortage. Although this might be good news for job prospects, it spells bad news for the industry.

"Prior to the GFC, the strength of the economy in general and the mining and construction industries placed massive pressure on available resources and we, and many other firms, were seeking to import skills from offshore," Ian Hopkins, CEO of engineering firm Norman Disney & Young, said.

"If the Chinese and Indian growth continues, creating significant demand in the mining industry and the overall Australian economy picks up…significant pressure will re-emerge on mechanical [engineering] and a range of other engineering disciplines."

Short-term solutions to skills shortages often involves importing overseas labour, while long-term solutions target school children to highlight awareness about careers outside the usual occupations.

"The engineering profession has been working to raise awareness amongst high school students of the benefits of an engineering career," Hopkins said.

"These grass roots activities need to be elevated. Government assistance in the form of funding and support of these programs is one area of initiative. Government can also use its influence and funding to encourage expansion of engineering facilities at universities."

Dr Alan Montague, an expert on skill shortages in trades and professions at RMIT University, says instead of imposing training levies on employers, wage subsidies should be diverted from the corporate sector and given to apprentices tax free.

"The fact that less than half of those that begin apprenticeships do not complete them is a serious concern," Montague said.

"There needs to be much more focus on the recognition of prior learning and fast-tracking. Currently, too much learning is occurring simply for the sake of learning, when too often the apprentices already have the skills."

Individual businesses, meanwhile, have dealt with the skills shortage in different ways. Norman Disney & Young has developed a comprehensive graduate recruitment and training program to provide a constant flow of quality-trained engineers. 

"This program has benefited our company directly and has provided significant benefit to the industry at large," Hopkins said.

If you’re a mechanical engineer looking at your job prospects, the employment situation varies around the country. Western Australia and Queensland are particularly buoyant at the moment, with Queensland expected to experience a peak as the rebuilding process from the floods begins.

Hopkins says consulting and contracting engineers are unlikely to experience difficulty in finding employment though, due to a good balance of supply and demand.

Salaries have also been buoyant due to strong demand from the mining industry, with Hopkins saying wages have remained relatively high from the graduate level upwards.

Hopkins advises graduates should ensure their first job will give them solid grounding and good training, with a minimum of two years in their first role to ensure they reap the benefits.

Meanwhile, for those looking to make a move, he said: "ensure that the change will provide you with greater fulfilment and benefit your career."

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S.P.Rangaswami | Wednesday, March 2, 2011, 1:58 PM
Generally a MECHANICAL ENGINEER is needed in any kind of Industry. A MECHANICAL ENGINEER need to have PHYSICAL, MENTAL & HAND SKILL to perform his work in the most effiocient way. But, generally, the salaries when compared to other white color jobs, the mechanical engineers are paid low. Hence the shortage. If this is taken carestudents will opt for mech. engg. as a carrier.
Rob Cowdell | Wednesday, April 20, 2011, 4:51 PM
I do not agree 100% with Mr Morgan. I understand that prior learning should be considered, however this is already well catered for in many trades by skills/challenge testing where the trainee can demonstrate the prerequite skill sets. Yet there is often a tendancy to overlook the theory if the practical is sound. This, I believe, would be a mistake. The fact that a person can master a skill to a certain level does not mean they can continue to expand their knowledge. If you do not know why a thing is done, or operates a certain way, then you are simply a rather well trained monkey. A monkey may be able to do certain tasks, yet I strongly doubt would be able to go through and master CAD/CAM