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Engineer's paradise

Demand for civil engineers in Australia has never been higher. Despite a decision by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to tighten up the rules for admitting foreign professionals, foreign civil engineers remain at the top of the “most wanted” chart.

“Australia has a shortfall of 20,000 to 30,000 engineers,” says Megan Motto, chief executive of industry body Consult Australia. “Our university engineering schools graduate around 6,000 Australians from bachelor of engineering courses each year. Currently skilled migrants account for more than half of the supply of new engineers.”

From next week the number of professions allowed to enter the country on independent visas will drop from over 400 to 181. This means that only a select number of skills (including civil engineering) will qualify for entry through the independent visa programme. This entry route, costing £3,172, allows professionals to emigrate to the country before finding a job. It is unlike a sponsored entry programme where habitation is conditional on employment by a company or a state. According to London Office of the Agent General for South Australia’s business development manager Alice Whittington, the visa changes are a bid to push more firms to sponsor emigrating foreign staff.

Immigration controls

“Previously, employer sponsored entry was not used as much as the government would like. It is pushing this pathway to ensure that the skills moving in meet Australian demand, so instead of just arriving, people are directly filling roles,” she says.

“The government is really focusing on health and engineering.”

Leading Australian consultant SKM says both employment routes are common for engineers moving into the country. It has sponsored 20 UK professionals in the past two years.

“The firm has also recruited a significant number of staff that recently emigrated to Australia [using the independent visa route],” explains SKM People Team senior manager Donna Poole. “This often provides benefits because the candidate has already committed to living in new country so there is more of a staged set of changes and decisions for them and their families.”

According to Poole, civil engineers from the UK have traditionally joined SKM in the buildings, transport and water infrastructure practices. “Specifically there is demand for experienced design managers and project managers in complex transportation projects, buildings projects in the health, education and justice sectors and major water engineering projects. Technical specialists in road pavement design, permanent way design, tunnel design, and bridge, geotechnical and water engineering are particularly sought after,” says Poole.

Other firms report the same needs. According to the 2009 Consult Australia skills survey geotechnical, general civil, structural and environmental engineers are most sought after followed by transport and water professionals (see table). The same survey found that mid level and senior staff were most needed with 63% of firms reporting shortages in these areas. “The recent survey by Consult Australia showed that firms recruited heavily from overseas and had most trouble filling middle and senior level positions,” says Motto.

A range of factors is driving the rising demand not least the government’s strategy to spend on infrastructure to boost economic growth. The Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan was launched in December 2008 and centres around building new infrastructure and creating jobs.

Spending plans

Most of the country’s £42bn investment plans will be made in the first three years and by December 2009, £14.4bn had been spent on 34,853 projects (NCE 18 February). According to Australia’s Construction Forecasting Council, this coupled with existing infrastructure spending means that a massive £295bn will be invested in infrastructure in the 10 years to 2018.

Transport investment is a critical part of the plans and a key area of concern for the government, which fears that its investment plans could be stifled by the skills shortage. Consult Australia says that the spending boom is driving engineers and labourers away from community infrastructure industries like road and rail as other sectors like mining, buildings, education and environmental and geotechnical absorb staff. The net result is that demand for engineering staff in road and rail is outstripping supply and impacting on key infrastructure delivery.

The problem is so severe that the Australian National Engineering Taskforce (ANET), of which Consult Australia is a founding member, has received funding from the deputy prime minister who is keen to investigate skills development and mobility in the engineering workforces across these two industries.
International recruitment consultant Hays confirms that rail in particular is full of opportunities.

“Across Australia the rail industry is booming, with a predicted A$10bn (£5.8bn) investment in infrastructure over the coming years,” says Diane Townson, manager at Hays. “Sydney’s rail network is undergoing a major upgrade, which will extend to aspects such as stations, power distribution, general civil infrastructure and signalling over the next five to 10 years.”

Cities such as Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne are also seeking rail specialists as they plan light and heavy rail networks. Road projects are planned throughout the country.

“Typical projects include 27km of motorway near Melbourne, tunnel and overhead structure infrastructure for Brisbane’s dedicated busway network plus social infrastructure projects such as the £500M, 1,000 bed Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth,” says Poole.

Other recent projects undertaken by SKM include a 100km water pipeline, major desalination plants and
numerous dry bulk port infrastructure upgrades supporting resources sectors in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales.

Another major growth area for Australian consultants is in the environmental sector. The consultancy skills survey reveals that 52% of firms have predominantly carried out work in this sector in 2009 and 30% of firms report a shortage of environmental professionals. According to Consult Australia this is due to a combination of the need to manage climate change adaptation issues and a growing demand for community infrastructure and maintenance.

The mining boom in Western Australia has also left firms with staffing issues.
Survey respondents indicated that the location that has been the most difficult to recruit for has been regional areas of Western Australia regional/remote and Queensland with 33% of respondents reporting vacancies in these locations.

“The demand for skills in both areas has been very high in recent history, resulting from the mining boom,” says the survey. SKM says it is always on the lookout for staff in this area. “Professionals in the area of project controls and mining infrastructure design will readily find high calibre roles,” says Poole.
Unsurprisingly, the increase in demand is pushing up engineering salaries, which predictably vary with geography and experience.

Pay

“In general, salaries are increasing in Australia and the market is more buoyant,” says Townson. “The recently published Hays Salary Guide for Australia shows that civil engineers can expect an average £3,000 more than compared to a year ago.”

However, thanks to Australia’s strong economic performance, UK candidates must also take account of the strong Australian Dollar. “Whilst salaries may seem more attractive, the cost of living is rising,” says Townson.
According to Hays, typical salaries are highest in cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Civil engineers in these cities can expect to earn between £32,000 and £81,500 per annum, depending on location and skills.

Construction managers can earn as much as £146,000 in Sydney and group manager and principals salaries starting at around £87,000.

Overall, Australian consultants report that 15% of their staff are sourced from overseas markets and this is set to increase with demand. The number of locally trained engineers is expected to remain relatively stable leaving firms to scour international markets to meet their growth targets.

Hays Salary Guide can be viewed at: www.hays.net.au/salary/default.aspx

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