In a recent IPWEA roundtable published in the July/August edition of inspire magazine, industry experts examined the difficulties the local government sector has attracting and retaining public works engineers.
Although it is a complicated problem that requires a multifaceted approach to solve, according to Gordon Brock, Director of the Local Government Engineers Association, part of the issue lies in the lack of a defined career path.
"People are looking for well-defined, well-remunerated career paths; not just jobs. They don’t just want to be an asset engineer, they want to see continual development. Will [Barton] is a rare breed these days; Directors of Engineering are not as common as they used to be across the industry."
Young IPWEA Chair and Director of Engineering at Junee Shire Council Will Barton agreed.
"The trend across the industries is that engineers are only making it to the second or third level of management. And that’s it. They’re hitting the ceiling. That goes to the finding of Gordon [Brock's] survey, that they’re moving on to look for those great opportunities to get into," he said.
As Infrastructure Advisor for Rationale Vaughn Crowther said, a shortage of engineers within local government has implications for future generations. "Ultimately, it’s the risk to the quality and cost of core services to the public. But there’s also a form of opportunity cost – we don’t know what quality of life we could be achieving," he said.
"Great engineers are often driven by a vision of creating a better world, and if we don’t have that vision and the people to see it through, then the implications are quite substantial.
"A topical example is the now long-awaited roll out of the autonomous vehicle and the substantial safety benefits they would bring. In New Zealand, we still have over 300 people dying on our roads each year. This is completely unacceptable and is the case alone to engineer a better solution. So why are we not making this a priority project? If they were deaths through earthquakes or contaminated water supplies then there would be serious implications to our sector. Perhaps we are already in an engineering crisis if we cannot deliver this alternative future for our people."
The below infographic illustrates the current state of the local government engineering sector, outlining why engineers choose to leave local government.
While issues such as better pay are often difficult for councils to address, there are a multitude of other ways to make local government a more attractive career option.
According to City of Ryde's Antony Ogle, there are other ways to recognise performance beyond pay rises, which can also assist in an engineer's career development.
"One is even just letting people go on conferences instead of niggling and haggling over it. And that leads to an even bigger issue: trust. Recognition through trusting people’s engineering judgement," he said.
"I think that recognition comes through that trust, and that willingness to talk, engage, listen to your opinion and bring you into the discussions. That’s worth more than the money."
Crowther added: "Rewards would also be recognition from peers, so making sure that we’re always recognising good engineering, and good decisions."
See the list of award winning projects and professionals from IPWEA's inaugural Excellence Awards.
Greg Ewing, Engineers Australia General Manager for Sydney and the ACT, said recognition and reward takes different forms for different people.
"It’s finding out about what’s valuable to them. Because a conference is really good for some people, and maybe some people like to attain something like becoming a chartered engineer. So, let them do it. Help them do it. Make it something that when they achieve it then it’s really recognised, and celebrated within the business. And that could make them the go-to person. Or it could be to go out, and represent the local authority as one of the keynote speakers."
Professor Roberta Ryan, Director of the UTS Centre for Local Government, told the roundtable that: "One of the attractions for local government is that people can actually go up the food chain for their professional base. I think to attract people to local government, we should be talking about the value of generalists, encouraging the fact that this is a pathway to leadership."
This infographic summarises some of the solutions for solving the problem of staff attraction and retention.