14 reasons why our country councils have an engineering drought

By intouch * posted 13-06-2017 14:25

By Chris Edwards, AUS-SPEC Engineer

Many regional councils struggle with recruiting and retaining skilled public works engineers, and with an increasing number of local government engineers starting to retire the problem is only going to get worse. 

iStock-482020686.jpgChris Edwards is a civil engineer with more than 40 years’ experience in local government. Now working with AUS-SPEC, the specification system for design, construction and maintenance of local government assets, Edwards says he is disappointed by the ‘spiralling situation’ of older local government engineers rapidly retiring or leaving the industry.

Here, he outlines the reasons he believes regional councils are losing skilled works staff:

  1. Old superannuation schemes create a maximising of points for people in their mid-50s and later. These people get the advantage of retiring on a higher salary. People are retiring early and 40 years of skills are being lost to local government.

  2. A lot of job restructuring is occurring where the new jobs are on lower salaries. Even though the people in the jobs are valuable and want to be retained, the employee elects not to apply for the new job and becomes redundant and gets payout remuneration. Thus a valuable employee leaves the local government industry up to eight years early at times.

  3. The salary levels for some country engineering jobs are low and uncompetitive compared with alternative employment. In many cases the prospective employee's partner is earning more than the engineer's job offer and is loath to follow the employee to the country councils from cities.

  4. Country councils used to offer staff council houses with subsidised rent. Houses are difficult to sell in many country towns, thus provision of housing is a major incentive to accept a job in the country. Their lack of availability is a loss to the council far greater than the cost of providing the house.

  5. Country towns have less government and medical services and lifestyle extras such as nice restaurants, good schools and close proximity to universities. 

  6. Engineers are increasingly skills-narrowed due to digital transformation; engineers working in the country need to increase their skills range to be professionally relevant. Adaptation to rapid changes in technology creates performance pressures and may lead to a negative performance review of the employee. If this leads to employment termination then this person is lost to the industry.

  7. Many local government managers lack the mentoring support skills to help the young engineers to perform at the required professional level. A general lack of skills is a problem in country councils. These same pressures exist for attracting other professionals such as doctors.

  8. In years past it was not uncommon for technical staff to work 20 years in the one council; this is no longer the norm.

  9. Lack of opportunity for salary increases is caused by a very rigid salary system, which leads to dissatisfaction. Rewards are not available for good performance, only loss of employment for lesser performance.

  10. Country councils are squeezed financially and the more they are squeezed, the more difficult and less attractive jobs in the country will be.

  11. Many immigrant engineers are accepting country appointments; however, many leave as soon as they secure a city appointment.

  12. Some councils are advertising skilled, experienced technical management jobs at much lower than the market average. As a result, recruitment and retention of technical staff is difficult. People with lower management skills are accepting the jobs and councils have to suffer poor management decisions and workplace inefficiency.

  13. Some councils are offering vehicle leaseback packages and those councils are making a profit. The original purpose of a vehicle leaseback was as an employment incentive. In many cases it is now a disincentive.

  14. Training cadetships were once common in every council – not so today. Many smaller councils see training as a burden. If you train enough cadets the young person may return later in life as a senior manager. If the aforementioned problems are not addressed the cadets may never return to local government.
Do you agree with Chris’ points, or do you have a different view? If you’re an IPWEA member you can leave a comment below – if not, you can submit your comment by emailing

Don't miss the July edition of inspire magazine, where we'll hold a roundtable with industry experts to discuss how local government can recruit and retain skilled public works engineers. 

About the author

Starting out in public works engineering in 1968 as a cadet engineer (back in the days of slide rules), Chris Edwards is now an IPWEA Fellow with an extensive background in local government. This includes seven years as Shire Engineer at Wentworth Shire Council between 1986 and 1993 and seven years as Senior Land Development Engineer at Liverpool City Council.


AUS-SPEC is the national local government specification system for the life cycle management of assets. It is a joint venture between IPWEA and NATSPEC, with the objective to improve consistency, quality, and efficiency in construction through proactive leadership of information. AUS-SPEC documents were created to capture the wealth of experience in local government, and harmonise local government contract documentation across Australia.

An AUS-SPEC subscription includes editable specification templates, guidance and examples for preparing specifications, tender and contract documentation, maintenance management plans and contract schedules for design, and construction and/or maintenance contracts. AUS-SPEC specifications are updated annually in response to changes in regulations, standards, industry practices, and the evolving needs of our subscribers. AUS-SPEC maintenance worksections can also be included in iPads as a reference guide for day labour team leaders for modern asset management.

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16-06-2017 12:39

Good article Chris, looks bleak when you stack them all together.
Agree with most of your points, but not all is lost.  There are plenty of us left in organisations like IPWEA and LGEA who are working hard to fix some of the shortfalls you mention.  
For example CSU has a new Engineering program partnering with a number of Councils, with 28 engineering cadets going into (mostly) country placement next month. This successful program will grow over time.

15-06-2017 14:50

Totally agree. Shortage of professionals is a growing problem. You highlighted several issues that affect both recruiting and retention. E.g. increasing vehicle leaseback cost; housing; fewer cadetships; management changes and job restructures are disincentives when close to retirement or have the mobility to change jobs - easier to get out of the way and avoid the stress; struggling to recruit creates long gaps leaving Council short staffed and staff stressed, exacerbating the problem. We seem to be losing some of the heart as Government focuses on financial indicators that tell a limited story. I retired at 63 - having time to do other things gets more attractive as incentives to stay reduce. I am still interested in helping my community and the council, so I am currently back temporarily part time to pass on some knowledge.