Daniel Edwards and Jacob Pearce discuss a study that explores the perceptions of the engineering workforce, including engineering education and barriers to participation and career advancement.
The Australian Workforce Productivity Agency (AWPA) recently observed that, while the overall supply of engineers has gradually increased, barriers to workforce participation still exist, particularly for under-represented groups.
In order to better understand engineering workforce issues, AWPA conducted a national study to identify appropriate workforce development strategies. As part of this study, AWPA commissioned the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to collect first-hand information about the experiences and attitudes of women, mature-age workers, new graduates and school students in relation to the engineering workforce. Eight focus groups involving 67 participants were held during April and May 2014, each focusing on one of the four target populations.
While the sample is relatively small, the discussions from the focus groups nonetheless offer some interesting and useful insights into the engineering workforce from the perspectives of the four target populations that further illuminate the findings of the national study.
Pathways into engineering
Both the graduate groups and the student groups were enthusiastic in relating their ‘discovery’ of engineering. For some, this came through family and friends, but for most the stand-out ‘epiphany’-like moments were gained from seeing engineering in action through hands-on experiences initiated at engineering camps, careers fairs or open days. Participants in the focus groups highlighted how these experiences provided a practical introduction to the different roles of engineers and the opportunities available in engineering – particularly for those with an interest in mathematics and the sciences.
The importance of enjoying mathematics was another common theme that was apparent through all the groups involved in this study. It was unanimously expressed that engineering provides a very real way of applying the mathematics taught in the classroom and lecture hall.
Graduates, women in engineering and mature-age engineers all highlighted the extent to which university courses were weighted towards developing a theoretical understanding of the field, and the lack of practical knowledge development. While participants generally thought the extent to which practice was taught in university should increase, participants in the mature-age and women’s focus groups noted that a theoretical foundation was paramount, and highlighted that employers should also be responsible for developing practical engineering skills.
In terms of practice, the graduate, mature-age and women’s groups all highlighted the value of placements, internships and vacation work during engineering studies: however, there were concerns about both the availability of placements and the efforts required to secure one. Given that undertaking placements is a requirement of completing a degree in engineering, the scarcity of places and the substantial competition to gain these places was seen as an important issue needing to be addressed.
Entering the engineering workforce
Participants in the graduate and the mature-age groups highlighted the current difficulty in securing engineering work for those new to the profession. Both groups acknowledged that employers were desperate for specialist skills and work experience but also that these requirements could not be satisfied by new graduates. This was seen as problematic, given the expansion in engineering places at university in recent years.
A common theme expressed by the graduates and women’s groups was that being a woman was not a barrier to entering the engineering workforce today. Both groups of participants spoke of recent experiences where companies were directly recruiting women, or at least making concerted efforts to increase the representation of women in the engineering workforce. There was general optimism among women in engineering and the female school students about the future of the engineering workforce in supporting women as an important group in industry.
Engineering in the future
When ‘the future’ and engineering was raised in discussion, there were notable differences in outlook among the groups. For example, while the mature-age group thought engineers were undervalued in relation to their design and problem-solving skills, the school students tended to have a good understanding of these requirements for engineers and were confident that these skills were recognised and seen as important.
In addition, while the mature-age group was concerned about the shifting of industry out of Australia – as they had witnessed during their careers – the graduates and school students were more interested in discussing the technological opportunities that might be available in the future and, linked with this, the significant role that engineers will have in helping to bring about these technological changes.
The feedback from the focus groups suggest a number of approaches that could be explored or more widely implemented in order to improve the experience of the engineering workforce.
Flexible working and remuneration conditions were seen as important for supporting women in engineering, as conditions currently vary depending on employer or manager.
Mature-age students suggested mentoring and graduate programs as best-practice approaches to building the skills and experience of young engineers. Highlighting the links between engineering, business, law and other areas was seen as important, and could be facilitated at university by, for example, having business students create business plans for engineering students’ projects.
Recent engineering graduates highlighted the need to build practical and project-based experience among new engineering students, through programs such as the Engineers Without Borders Challenge. In terms of providing better opportunities for work placements, and often graduate jobs, scholarship programs that connect recipients with an employer for placements relieve the burden of finding a placement during study and can eventually lead to employment.
For school students, there is a need for better access and referral to information on the engineering job market and the diversity of the engineering workforce. Students would benefit from involvement in ‘real life’ problem-solving tasks relating to engineering, as well as targeted presentations that connect learning experiences in the school curriculum with engineering jobs.
By helping AWPA better understand the workforce issues in the engineering profession, ACER is helping to ensure Australia has the right engineering skills for the future. ■
Read the full report:
Focus Groups for informing AWPA’s Engineering Workforce Study 2014, by Daniel Edwards, Jacob Pearce, Kate Perkins and Justin Brown, is available from <research.acer.edu.au/higher_education/37>.