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As Royal Haskoning opens its first office in Australia, we learn about the country’s resources boom and its two-speed economy. We also discover the affect the skills gap is having on infrastructure, and how the country is dealing with the added challenge of climate change.
Since the discovery of a vast section of coastline in the southern hemisphere, named ‘New Holland‘ by 17th century Dutch explorers, it seems the world has held a fascination with Australia. During the past three centuries, those in search of a better way of life have migrated here from across the world, bringing skills, labour, and trade, raising a strong economy, and a diverse population of some 22.7 million people.
Now, while Australia is experiencing a resources boom, other industry sectors have not been immune to the world’s economic downturn. This, coupled with a serious shortage of engineers, the country is now dependent on specialist skills from abroad to support its growth sectors and develop much needed infrastructure.
As Royal Haskoning opens its first office in the country, Range talks to Sydney based director Greg Britton about the economy and the country’s need for new infrastructure. He also discusses the challenges brought about by the engineering skills gap and climate change.
Two speed economy
“Broadly speaking, compared with others parts of the world affected by the global financial crisis, we are able to recover perhaps more quickly. This is because we are a resource rich country, and our banking industry tends to be more regulated.
“However we’re currently a twospeed economy. Areas where resources are being mined or extracted, like Western Australia and Queensland, are doing much better than other states, such as Victoria and New South Wales. So while the resources industries are generally booming, the manufacturing, retail and building construction industries are much quieter. Interest rates have been reduced in an effort to stimulate economic growth in these sectors, however economic uncertainty within Europe is expected to affect economic confidence within Australia.”
Engineering skills shortage At a time when it needs it the most Australia is suffering an engineering skills shortage, as only half the number of engineers required are graduating from university. According to Greg, Australia is suffering from a lost decade of suitably skilled and experienced people, and dwindling engineering resources within government itself.
“We have limited ‘homegrown’ engineers within our communities and in government. During the early 1970s, there was a real recognition of the value of engineering skills in the community, but during the 80s and 90s engineering wasn’t perceived to be as glamorous as other professions. Now I think what we’re seeing is a gap going through the engineering community of suitably skilled people within the 35 to 45 year age group. There is certainly a gap behind my experience level, and that is permeating through the profession.
“At present, we are experiencing a combination of issues and opportunities. A downturn in Europe, and a resources boom here. It’s now well known that there are inadequate skills within Australia to address the boom, or the infrastructure to support it. As a result we’re seeing engineers coming into the country from Eastern Europe, Africa, the UK and Ireland, as well as engineers who have been trained in Asia.
“It’s also quite clear to me that there is a significant shortage of people with broad experience in maritime and coastal areas. It takes time for these deficiencies to be addressed, because you have to find people and put them through university, and then they have to gain experience. By this time you have a void stretching 10 to 15 years.”
With thousands of miles between coastline communities and interior settlements, its people and industries are dependent upon good transport systems.
“We need a lot of infrastructure in Australia because our country is so large. Transportation in itself is a huge challenge, so there is a lot of focus on heavy freight rail systems and ports in particular.
“At the same time, common with many other countries, investment in the maintenance of our existing infrastructure falls short.
“Now we require more port and rail facilities to export our coal, iron ore and natural gas out of the country. Some of this infrastructure is being funded by private organisations involved in these sectors, and as a result we are seeing new port developments, as well as upgrades and expansions of existing ports, particularly throughout Western Australia and Queensland.”