The Auckland Council paints a busy picture of the future. According to its long-term plan thousands of houses need to be built for the hundreds of thousands of people expected to swarm the country in the years to come, roading is needed to connect the far flung among them to the rest of the city, and infrastructure is required to support this efflorescence of humans. And Christchurch must be rebuilt.
But if we don’t have enough engineers, how are we to build New Zealand’s future?
Engineers are in hot demand in New Zealand — with only nine per cent of all tertiary graduates being engineers, we’re below the OECD average of 12 per cent in terms of churning out qualified people, according to a report from the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ). Right now, with the profession on the immigration “skills in demand” list, New Zealand is sourcing many of its engineers from overseas.
Brett Williams, director of learning and assessment at IPENZ laments the shortage of engineers and also what it means for the future.
“If you want New Zealand to be an innovation-led economy, then new products and innovating around technology requires engineers – so that means more engineers, if that’s your long-term vision for the country.”
So why don’t we have enough engineers, and what are we doing about it?
Some say the trend needs to be kicked off early with the kids — the engineers of tomorrow.
While some children in New Zealand learn about the profession through relatives with careers as carpenters or engineers, Kowhai School technology teacher, Sam Ibrahim, says many Year 7 and 8 children he has taught at his intermediate in Kingsland are painfully lacking any kind of exposure to the basics of engineering.
“Some kids in my class — they’ve never used or even touched a screwdriver or hammer. It’s really sad. They need to learn a lot.”
This is where Futureintech comes in, an initiative of which Ibrahim and hundreds of other teachers around the country are taking advantage.
A government-funded programme run by IPENZ, the scheme brings young professional technologists, engineers and scientists into schools, where they give careers talks and help out with projects in the classroom.
The idea was lit upon in 2002, when it was found that careers in ICT needed boosting. Yet when IPENZ was asked how they promoted careers in engineering, hoping to emulate their strategy, IPENZ admitted they didn’t do much themselves — and found that they’d better start because there was as much a need for engineers and scientists as there was for IT specialists. The shortage was worldwide.
Set up the the following year in 2003, Futureintech’s objective was to “help students have fun with learning, recognise the relevance of what they are studying and develop a greater understanding of the career opportunities ahead of them if they stick with maths, science and technology subjects through to senior level”.
Seven hundred and fifty-six ambassadors spread throughout New Zealand made 1947 visits to schools last year.
And the ambassadors have their work cut out for them.
“Auckland has a huge concentration of schools and students,” says Futureintech director Angela Christie.
“There are about 290,000 students that are of year seven upwards — that’s an enormous number of kids . . . ideally we could just double the amount of staff we have in Auckland.”
Most of the ambassadors are young — with two to six years’ work experience — for many reasons. It’s cheaper for a company to release somebody at that level, younger players tend to be involved in the colourful “hands-on” type of work out on sites, and their educational pathways are still in operation.
At Kowhai School, the class project was chosen by Ibrahim and worked through, week by week, with the ambassador.
“Kids discovered the meaning of engineering in this time — how the bridges are being built, who made the drain, and who looks after the road and the tunnel and the street,” says Ibrahim.
He says it’s important children are exposed to engineering early on, because once they grow up, it will be too late for them to choose the high school subjects they needed to study the profession.
“When they meet a real engineer, they start to think, ‘Oh that’s how that works’. . . and when you show them at this level, at this age, they might keep it in their minds, thinking, ‘Okay, I might do this one because I like it’.”
Kowhai School’s ambassador was 30-year-old Kate Woolley, senior tunnel engineer at the planning consultant firm AECOM — she taught the children how to draw up plans for a pergola.
She qualified in the UK but came to New Zealand just over a year ago with her partner, also an engineer, and she was involved in Futureintech back home.
“Going into those schools, they get really into it, and they get excited about it. That’s what makes you go and do it again,” says Woolley with a smile.
“You’d get the questions that you’d never think that you’d get. One boy said, ‘Did you find any dinosaur bones when you were digging?’ and they were very upset [when I said no]. But they get really enthusiastic about engineering.”
She said her time is not necessarily about getting the children to be engineers, but it’s about getting them to understand what engineering is, and how crucial the profession is in modern life.
“There’s been a lot of talk recently about Auckland and the way it’s going – transport plans, will there be a city rail link, will there be a harbour crossing. Part of it is funding, part of it is having the right people to design it the most efficiently and effectively. So you need good engineers to do that.”
Among other causes of the shortages, the “brain drain” is an oft-cited worry. Yet findings of IPENZ research from a few years back showed that migration is neutral — just as many engineers are coming into the country as are leaving.
Other schemes are targeting the tertiary sector itself.
This year the Government announced a $42 million grant to universities to encourage the training of engineers.
“It was looking to incentivise the universities and polytechnics to enrol more engineers, by making it more attractive to enrol engineers, as opposed to whatever else. So there’s a bit of a recognition that engineering is an area shortage,” said Williams.
Fundamentally, Williams said, the conclusion was New Zealand just wasn’t producing enough engineers out of university.
“Based on our research, the gap was primarily at the technician/technologist level — so that’s at the two-year diploma or three-year degree level, but also at the four-year degree level.”
Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Auckland Charles Clifton said the Canterbury and Auckland engineering schools are running at full capacity so right now there’s a limit on the number of students they can take through the system.
However in May this year it was announced the University of Auckland would be upgrading its engineering faculty in a $216 million project as part of a $1 billion property refurbishment and expansion over the next decade.
“We have planned to take on 20 per cent more students between now and 2020,” said Clifton.
“The facilities here are really crowded, and we urgently need more space and more facilities. The engineering school needs to grow.”
If all goes to plan, the years to come may see New Zealand’s voracious appetite for more infrastructure matched by a supply of engineers to do the job, using a combination of more keen youngsters, cheaper education and more training facilities. Maybe we will get the future we desire.