“Solving problems you didn’t know you had in ways you don’t understand” – it’s a slogan on a popular t-shirt available online – attempting to define what it is that engineers do.
As a slogan, it’s less a rallying call and more an unwitting observation of how underappreciated the guiding hand of engineering is in shaping the world we live in. Crafting technological and scientific advances that are of such universal, every day application that for the most part, the magic of engineering goes unnoticed, unremarked, and is little understood.
Engineers Australia President John McIntosh has admitted in the media that “the narrative is wrong” around engineering and that the common perception of engineers is of “grubby old boys and their toys”.
Such a stereotype could explain why degrees in engineering are clearly undersubscribed and gender imbalanced, at universities across Australia.
In 2014, there were 6755 engineering bachelor completions and 2303 advanced diplomas, with women making up just 14 per cent of all completions.
With such a shortfall set against an overwhelming demand for engineering skills, skilled migration has been a feature of the Australian labour force for decades. Engineers Australia reports that 54 per cent of those who make up Australia’s engineering workforce today, were born overseas.
One of those skilled migrants is UniSA’s Professor Simon Beecham, Pro Vice Chancellor: Information Technology, Engineering and the Environment, who explains how vital engineering is to growing Australia.
“Australia is one of the few developed countries that has positive population growth through migration – its population rises by about 25 per cent every 16 years,” says Prof Beecham, who grew up in the UK.
“In 1950, the population was about a third of what it is today and infrastructure has to catch up with this growth.
“If you grow your population you have to build more roads, more hospitals and schools. If Australia is committed to economic growth and it undoubtedly is, engineering is its future.”
Engineering is the catch-all profession that can address this infrastructure development with specialisations across civil, electrical, mechanical and mechatronic fields.
Engineering is also something that UniSA does well.
“All five of our engineering fields were assessed as five out of five – well above world standard – in the Federal Government’s Excellence in Research Australia 2015 assessment,” Prof Beecham says.
Problem solvers, critical thinkers and practical innovators – these are the terms that Prof Beecham uses to describe engineers, adding that those who train as engineers are trained as system thinkers, to work collaboratively and think big picture outcomes.
He says a much better t-shirt slogan for describing engineering would be "Engineers: creating the world of tomorrow".
“Scientists study the world as it is, while engineers create the world that has never been – the world of tomorrow,” Prof Beecham says.
“The ability of engineers to respond in pragmatic and practical ways to the opportunities arising from new innovations and inventions throughout history, also means the skills set of engineers continues to evolve and branch into different directions.
“In Roman times there were military engineers, with civil engineers being the first ones to branch away from the military.
“During the Industrial Revolution mechanical engineers emerged, and then later electrical engineers. During the 1960s and 1970s there was a rise in nuclear engineers and a more recent branch of engineering, really since the 1980s,
is environmental engineering.”
It is environmental engineering that lies behind a dynamic program designed by UniSA researchers to help roof drainage companies, such as Syfon, construct effective systems across a range of major infrastructure, to help harvest rainwater and improve water management systems.
By being able to collect rainwater that falls on the rooves of structures including stadiums, convention centres, airports and shopping centres, and then channel it to be used for irrigation purposes, the value of engineering in the process of recycling is immediately obvious, especially in South Australia – often touted as “the driest State in the driest inhabited continent on Earth”.
Looking to the future and other areas of engineering, innovations such as driverless cars will require the expertise of engineers to turn such new products into a working, practical reality.
“Everything has become much more multi-disciplinary. Engineers have to work in teams, with computer scientists, with landscape architects and a range of others,” Prof Beecham says.
“This is because most of the major challenges facing society today are not in a single domain. Some of society’s biggest concerns – population growth, water scarcity, climate change – these can’t be tackled by one profession alone.
“The car itself is a mechanical engineering device. The roads that cars drive on are the domain of civil engineers and the interaction systems that they use to manage that infrastructure, such as traffic lights, are the domain of electrical engineers.
“As new technologies evolve, the nature of roads and infrastructure will have to change as well.”
Not every engineering career should be associated with construction though, and perhaps ironically, it was this realisation that led Michelle Howie to switch her course to study engineering at UniSA.
In 2015, under the Federal Government’s New Colombo Plan Scholarships Scheme, Howie was named the inaugural Fellow for Korea, allowing her to take her electronics and communications engineering degree overseas on exchange at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities.
Since then she has travelled to Hong Kong for an internship with the Telstra International Group, learning about the sub-sea optical fibre network and satellite transmissions that connect our world.
“The first thing that comes to mind when you say ‘engineering’ is building roads and bridges or water sanitation and cars, which actually is what deterred me for years,” Howie says.
“I think that by promoting engineering as a more glamorous profession with companies like Google, Apple, Samsung and Telstra, young people will have more incentive to pursue engineering, especially people like me who balk at the thought of cars and construction sites.
“I had previously dismissed engineering as a stale, boring career, but after deferring my first year of a marketing and media degree and volunteering in a remote Fijian village, I saw that engineering solutions have potential to connect people and places around the world.
“I now know that I don’t have to be alone behind a calculator in a lab to make these changes. If you like maths and technology but think your ‘personality’ isn’t for engineering, then think again.”
Engaging students to study maths and technology at a young age is regarded as key to generating interest in this career path.
The percentage of Year 12 students in Australia studying intermediate maths has dropped from 27.2 per cent in 1995 to 19.4 per cent in 2012, while those studying advanced maths has fallen from 14.1 per cent to 9.4 per cent over the same period.
Prof Beecham describes maths as the “language of engineering”.
“Seventy-five per cent of the fastest growing occupations in the world require science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills, and most countries in world are worried about the lack of STEM skills that children have on leaving school,” he says.
Fostering a culture that places greater emphasis on stories and positive role models associated with the engineering sector is something advocated by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in the UK.
In a country where only nine per cent of engineers are women, the IET invests considerable resources into celebrating female engineering talent, with events such as the IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards.
In an interview, President of the IET, Naomi Climer cites early computer pioneer Ada Lovelace and the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia, Amy Johnson as strong examples of female engineer role models. But she says such historic names pale on the media landscape and on the Twittersphere in the era of Kardashian, Swift and Jenner.
Prof Beecham says accentuating positive media stories around STEM and around engineering would still be one way of building interest in the profession.
A better media profile may not necessarily result in snappier t-shirt slogans, but certainly would make more people aware of the good news story that is engineering, which Prof Beecham concludes, as simply as this:
“Engineers don’t build ‘things’ but they are responsible for creating happy, vibrant and sustainable communities. Australia is one of the best countries in the world in which to be an engineer and engineering is one of the best professions.”
Find out more about engineering at UniSA at unisa.edu.au/IT-Engineering
Connect with the New Colombo Plan @NewColomboPlan