Engineers: the canaries in the economic coal mine?
Engineers are supposed to be the engine drivers of an economy. But after 37 years in the sector, Geoff Eaton is struggling to find work. And he's not alone.
When I returned to Melbourne after more than 20 years absence I threw myself into the hunt for an engineering job. But the results were absolutely dismal and totally discouraging. And my experience is far from unique among engineers, the canaries in the economic coal mine.
After nine months of searching and applying for jobs at the rate of 20 to 40 jobs per week as a project manager -- my current role for the last 10 years -- project engineer and mechanical engineer I have had one interview, where the interview panel were clearly going through the motions and had obviously made their mind up to go with someone else. I have looked for work in every major city in Australia, all through south-east Asia, the Middle East, north-east Asia and Europe. I have indicated that I’m available for a permanent position, contract or temporary. Absolutely nothing tangible has come up.
But I’m not alone. At a recent social gathering of engineers I noted that many of them were out of work. I have heard of engineers in Perth being out of work for 18 months and similar stories from Brisbane. In addition, a few engineers I’ve met talk of impending layoffs and reduced work hours. The future is not bright, and unemployment is looming for many engineers, young and old, irrespective of their discipline or industry.
Why am I suddenly unemployable? I have worked for 37 years as an engineer, project engineer and project manager in the oil and gas industry, all over the world. In addition I formed my own wind energy company 10 years ago and had limited success in that area, mainly due to the poor uptake of wind power. I have a diverse and rounded background and a pretty good resume if I say so myself. But the factors that work against me are significant and appear to be getting worse. Firstly, I’m now 61 years old, so I automatically get put to the side in the CV cull. Anyone under 55 with half my experience will be considered first. Secondly my attempt to do the right thing and develop wind energy is seen as a negative, where employers in the oil and gas industry view me as an untrustworthy “greenie”.
But the external factors are the underlying problem. There are just no jobs available, or at least very few. The engineering job market is totally flat and going negative. The conservative estimate of unemployed engineers in Australia is around 22,000. This represents an unemployment rate of 12.2% for engineers, which is twice the national general unemployment rate. And all professional engineering bodies and forecasters indicate that the outlook for 2015 is going to be far worse. In the fourth quarter of 2015 it is estimated that more than 30,000 engineers, or one in six, will be unemployed. This is becoming a disaster of monumental proportions, since it represents a virtual standstill in investment and resource and infrastructural development.
What is particularly galling is the waste of experienced engineers, like me, in being able to work with and mentor younger engineers and pass on our knowledge and wisdom. On the other hand, though, there are hundreds of young engineers coming out of university who will struggle to get employment and are destined to be part of the lost generation.
What is happening on the ground is very insightful. Consultancies have closed the doors in all major cities. In Brisbane there are anecdotal reports that 22 consultancies formerly busy doing mining works have no jobs at all and the outlook for 2015 is dismal. In Melbourne a number of consultancies have shut up shop, and the project departments of most others are virtually empty. Employees of major consultancies are being asked to “relocate”, take their annual leave, take time off without pay or to be “let go”. Similar tales come from Perth and Adelaide. Some companies have “let go” hundreds and even thousands of personnel over the last three years. Industrial recruitment is stalled or going backwards, and old hands in the employment agencies state that this is the worst it has been for 30 years.
From my experience it is clear that investments to drive projects are drying up all over the world, not only in Australia. This has a direct impact on employment prospects. On top of that Australia is pursuing a policy of issuing permanent and temporary visas for engineers that is at odds with the availability of suitable resident engineers. The need to meet an exceptional demand for engineers in 2012 by issuing permanent and temporary visas has not been curtailed now that demand has abated. For example, for each of the last two years 5000 engineers were admitted on a permanent visa basis, and approximately 5500 engineers were issued temporary 457 visas. The rate of unemployment for engineers has been in excess of 7000 per year. This is now clearly an immigration/visa policy that is devoid of any logic or justification.
If engineers are supposed to be the engine drivers of the economy then something needs to improve, because this engine is stalling, and it will be hard to restart it.