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New Engineers Australia report shows decline in math, engineering capacity


A stark decline in young Australians studying mathematics coupled with a growing shortage of engineering capacity is putting Australia’s infrastructure dreams at risk, with more cost blowouts expected as complex building projects sit in limbo or go unfinished.

In 2008, 23.3 per cent of high school students took intermediate mathematics, while 11.6 per cent took higher math, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute records.

By 2023, just 17.6 per cent of high schoolers took intermediate math, a 24 per cent drop-off, and 9.2 per cent studied higher math, a 20 per cent fall.

Across the same period, Engineers Australia warns a severe shortage in engineering capacity has developed, with demand for math-smart engineers far outstripping supply.

It’s understood there are about 7000 vacancies for professional engineers at present and the shortage is expected to worsen.

“Despite a significant increase in the number of qualified engineers between 2016 and 2021, demand outpaces supply, growing at three times the rate of the general workforce,” a new report from the peak body stated on Wednesday.

Engineers Australia chief executive Romilly Madew AO said the nation’s ambitious infrastructure agenda was now at risk.

“The nation’s ambitious infrastructure reform agenda has created significant demand for engineers and we must have a sustainable pipeline to make it happen,” she said.

“The report we are launching today clearly shows both a shaky pipeline – with only 8.5 per cent of Australian graduates having an engineering qualification, the sixth lowest proportion in the OECD tertiary rankings by field, coupled with a serious shortages of experienced engineers across all states, in all sectors and for most engineering disciplines.”

“If there isn’t the engineering capability required to work on big infrastructure projects, the economic and societal consequences are costly, with projects delayed, in limbo or scrapped.”

Australia’s big build is already getting cut down to size, with the federal government looking to scrap projects to recover some $33bn in cost blowouts.

On Tuesday, Infrastructure Minister Catherine King announced new funding arrangements for infrastructure, moving from an 80:20 split with state governments to a 50:50 model and setting a federal contribution floor of $250m for a project to receive support unless it is connected to social housing, critical minerals or connects to a key freight route.

Ms Madew also warned that the federal government’s AUKUS ambition to acquire nuclear-powered submarines to beat back threats in the Indo-Pacific was at risk from the country’s failure to graduate enough engineers.

“A skilled workforce is essential for our defence capability,” she said.

“Anecdotally, Engineers Australia understands there are challenges in recruiting experienced engineers in defence and nuclear engineering.”

The report calls for collaboration between the public and private sectors to increase engineering graduates, retain more women in engineering, address the impending “retirement cliff” and remove barriers for migrant engineers.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.