Western Australia's Curtin University is fast-tracking a new double degree combining mechatronics and mechanical engineering, as the resources market rebounds and alarm bells ring over a looming shortage of engineering graduates.
Engineering job vacancies have been rising steadily through 2017-18 driven by the infrastructure boom on the east coast, with more job vacancies in WA also now starting to emerge as iron ore exports bounce back and investment increases in other commodities, including lithium.
Job opportunities in the mining and resources sector were up 34 per cent in June 2018 compared with a year earlier, according to the most recent mining and resources index released by recruitment group DFP.
Aecom civil infrastructure boss Ray Rawlings says the labour market is tight but salaries hadn't yet "got ridiculous". Robert Shakespeare
The new Curtin degree, which is expected to be available to undergraduates from 2019, is being developed in partnership with the resources industry, said Curtin University vice-chancellor Deborah Terry.
"The view is that we need this new double degree to ensure that our graduates are well equipped for the mining industry – for the present and the future – which is being transformed by technology," Ms Terry told The Australian Financial Review.
Mechatronic engineers, who understand how to design and use electronic systems including the automated drilling, haulage and rail systems now used by BHP, were also "critical" in advanced manufacturing, Ms Terry said.
Brent Jackson, executive general manager of Engineers Australia, said while mining engineers were an established occupation, modern mines were equally likely to employ structural, civil, electrical and chemical engineers.
"There is likely to be a higher demand for that non-traditional area of perhaps electrical engineers and people who deal with transport automation and high-tech areas," Mr Jackson said.
"If you are talking about vehicle automation, which is a large part of modern mining operations, you are going to be competing directly for the same skill set that they require in the eastern cities to deliver these major transport infrastructure projects so costs will go up, there is very little doubt about that."
Mechatronics skills, including knowledge of robotics, are becoming more important in engineering.
Salaries for people working on construction projects have been rising, partially driven by the infrastructure boom, with total compensation increasing 2.6 per cent in September quarter 2017 to reach a new record high of $17.9 billion, according to jobs and income data released by the ABS earlier this month.
But Ray Rawlings, managing director of Aecom's civil infrastructure business, said that while the labour market on the east coast was tight due to demand for engineers and designers to build urban infrastructure projects, salaries hadn't yet "got ridiculous".
Wage inflation was being "contained" because work was being shared around between the large multinational design companies and contractors now operating in Australia, who were able to send work overseas, Mr Rawlings said.
"The industry is quite different to what is was 10-15 years ago, firstly there has been rationalisation, so there are fewer big consultants and designers," he said.
"You've got the largest contractors in the world in Australia now, the Bouygues, the Accionas, the Ferrovials, the Koreans.
"Secondly there is far, far greater use of offshore design centres … we have design houses in eastern Europe and Spain and Asia that we use, and that gives us access to 24-hour resources and helps us ensure delivery for our clients."
Aecom needs 150 people to design tunnel entrances and stations after winning contracts on Melbourne's $11 billion Metro Tunnel project, but is filling the positions with existing Australian staff and people in its global design services, including Hong Kong.
Engineers Australia's most recent job vacancies report, which was released in February, shows that NSW and Victoria remain the hottest markets for engineers, followed by Queensland and WA, with civil engineering being the most sought-after field on the east coast and mining engineers the most popular on the west coast.
An updated report will be released in August, with Engineers Australia expecting to see "sustained growth" in WA jobs, Mr Jackson said. 'WA is definitely on the up."
However, the number of students studying engineering in WA has been falling, with Curtin University's engineering student numbers dropping by around 100 in 2017 compared with a year earlier to 1600, and fewer students opting to study mining and metallurgy.
The University of Western Australia said numbers of mining engineering graduates had "dipped" following the resources downturn but declined to provide specific numbers.
"We expect enrolments to rebound as the outlook for WA's mining industry continues to improve," a UWA spokesman said.
The WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy has teamed up with universities and companies to develop a strategy to try and boost numbers of engineering students.
"There are strong indications the WA resources industry is embarking on a new phase, driven primarily by the development of replacement mines in a number of commodities and expansion in industrial (including battery) mineral sectors," a spokesman for the chamber said.
"This, combined with the competition of construction projects on the east coast; significant decline in enrolments in resource industry specific disciplines at tertiary institutions and changing demands for skills developed through the vocational education and training sector, will likely place pressure on the resources industry labour market."
But while Engineers Australia is encouraging schools and universities to promote engineering programs, higher numbers of graduates isn't the only solution to ensuring Australia had enough professional engineers, Mr Jackson said.
"We need to level out infrastructure demand in this country, moderate it over time," he said. "Governments, as significant customers and a supplier of infrastructure services, need to ensure that they are not rushing to deliver the same sort of projects in the same place at the same time."
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