Skills shortages are here to stay, so engineering managers need to get more involved in hiring


Unfortunately, Australia’s engineering skills shortage is likely to stay for the long term.

That means engineering leaders and managers will need to become a lot more involved in recruitment if they want to successfully fill their skills gaps with the best possible candidates.

That’s the view of one of Australia’s top STEM recruitment experts, Kim Seeling Smith, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the field and is also one of the expert facilitators at Engineering Education Australia.

“The first thing that we need to realise is that we have come from literally centuries of a candidate-rich market, where there are more people than there are jobs to fill,” Seeling Smith says.

“A lot of organisations still operate as though the skills shortage is a temporary thing, and that we’ll soon go back to having plenty of candidates.”

However, recent estimates published by Engineers Australia show that more than 50,000 engineers are estimated to be needed over the next few years.

This is in an era when Australia is barely generating enough graduates to replace those who are retiring from the profession.

“We need to recognise that this is the new normal. We are not going back to a market where we have more candidates than we do people to fill them,” Seeling Smith says.

“As a result, we need to recognise that we have to do a better job with our hiring process.”

Why is there an engineering skills shortage in Australia?

So what’s behind this new normal?

Two of the main reasons, according to Seeling Smith, are Australia’s aging population and declining birth rate. As a result, significantly fewer Australians will enter the workforce over the coming decades.

According to the 2021 Commonwealth Integrational Report, there will be around 25% fewer people entering the workforce over the next 40 years than there were in the past four decades. The issue is likely to be particularly acute in the engineering sector, given that only 11.2 percent of the engineers currently working in Australia are women.

While skilled migration will help, strong overseas demand means the race to attract top engineering talent is now global.

“Even with immigration, there's still a gap because it's a global skill shortage. It's not just Australia that’s experiencing this,” Seeling Smith says.

How are AI and renewables changing the engineering profession?

The issue isn’t simply that there aren’t enough engineers — it’s also that the skills they need are rapidly changing.

"The engineering industry is going through a real reset at the moment with the transition away from traditional infrastructure projects into renewable energy and net zero initiatives,” Seeling Smith says.

For instance, there’s less demand for engineers with experience in designing coal or gas power plants. At the same time, demand has never been greater for engineers with expertise in areas such as large-scale renewables, grid-scale energy storage, and rail infrastructure.

"I work with a lot of engineers. In some sectors my clients are experiencing downturns, while other sectors are really, really ramping up,” Seeling Smith says.

It’s not just the type of work that engineers are doing that’s changing. The rise of digital design and artificial intelligence means how that work is being done is evolving too.

“Digital tools and AI are streamlining the design process, and that's going to take away some of the rudimentary work that engineers are doing,” Seeling Smith says

“That’s exciting on one level, because engineers will get to spend more time doing the things that they really love, such as the higher-level design work and partnering with clients to solve problems,

“But it's a skills change that’s making it difficult to find enough people with the right experience.”

Why do engineering managers need to get more involved in recruitment?

While many organisations invest in training and development for managers, Seeling Smith says few invest enough on the most important skill that leaders need to have, which is how to hire the right people.

“I've been doing this now for almost 30 years, and I can put my hand on my heart and say that very few managers really understand what goes into a robust hiring process.

"They prefer, in many cases, to abrogate that responsibility to the talent development team or HR.”

While HR teams and recruiters have important role to play, Seeling Smith says it’s ultimately up to the hiring manager to understand what they need. They also need to know how to run a robust hiring process that will find the right candidate for the role, and the business.

“Many engineering managers just don't know what to look for. So they end up basically taking somebody with a pulse, and then regret it later.”

How can you overcome the engineering skills shortage?

If you’re an engineering team leader, project manager, executive or director, how should you respond to the ongoing skills crisis?

Seeling Smith’s advice is to put the importance on the hiring process that it deserves — you will thank yourself later.

“You will save yourself time and money by thinking critically upfront about what it is that you need.

“You need to fish from different pools, so that you have a wide array of candidates to choose from, and then know how to run them through a robust hiring process.”

Have a look at the Course Catalogue for relevant training for learning and development professionals as well as engineering teams.