Engineering Australia’s Future

| September 25, 2017
The American engineer and author Henry Petroski once remarked that ‘science is about knowing’ while ‘engineering is about doing’.  While the importance of science in the STEM agenda is routinely emphasised by politicians and educators alike, the crucial role played by engineers is all too often ignored to the detriment of Australia’s future.
While Germany’s best and brightest students are encouraged by their parents and teachers to pursue an engineering career, Australia’s top students are still steered towards increasingly insecure careers in the professions or, at best, academic positions in theoretical science.  While every other country in the OECD trains two engineers for every scientist, Australia is unique in reversing this ratio.  Politicians have long called for more practical results from the nation’s substantial investment in pure research but until the nation’s dearth of engineers is tackled and the low status they suffer is improved, real world outcomes may remain elusive.
The Government’s substantial investment in defence procurement creates real opportunities for home grown engineering firms and prime defence contractors are seeking links above and beyond their tender obligations with the nation’s medium sized companies. These large foreign firms know that Australian mid-sized firms can more than match the productivity of their American counterparts in some sectors, making collaboration between them beneficial for all stakeholders.  While cyber-security concerns have been raised regarding the vulnerability of smaller firms to foreign intrusion, such issues are a pervasive threat across the economy and should not dissuade the government from its efforts to open contracts to smaller firms.
The appearance of high ranking ministers such as Christopher Pyne and Arthur Sinodinos at the recent GAP summit speaks to the importance which politicians view the mid-sized sector and the need for smaller Australian firms to innovate and grow.  While the owners and managers of many medium sized firms are content with their current size and clientele, the data gathering and analysis underway at the Department of Industry should highlight those with the willingness and potential to grow, allowing public resources to be targeted more effectively.  However these firms must remember the need to diversity their customer base as well as increase their scale of operations.  The devastation of specialist suppliers wrought by the decline of the auto industry should not be repeated when the current defence boom fades.  Companies seeking sustainable growth should not rest their long term fate on one short term customer or contract, no matter how lucrative in the short term.
The temptation for ambitious Australian entrepreneurs and companies to relocate abroad in search of greater investment or opportunity should therefore be tempered by the rich opportunities at home where competition may be less intense and high flying firms can achieve a higher profile. The Government’s creation of 7 growth centres speaks to its commitment to foster a new generation of world class Australian firms and mid-sized companies should learn from their German counterparts about the need to re-invent themselves to not only survive but thrive in fast changing times.
Secure within our vast borders, rich with natural resources and far from sources of potential conflict, Australians have long been able to maintain a phlegmatic faith in the future.  However the assumption that ‘she’ll be right, mate’, whatever happens in the outside world, defines the Australian character rather than a vigorous drive for self-improvement in pursuit of American-style manifest destiny. Tackling these ingrained cultural attitudes in an age when competition will know no boundaries is perhaps the most important task we face – and the easiest to pay lip service to – yet it is also the hardest to achieve.
The Turnbull government’s reluctance to highlight its innovation agenda in the light of its frosty public reception at the last Federal election will not encourage it, or the opposition, to take up the cudgels of change.  An uncontentious but enormously important first step all parties could take to this end might therefor be to emphasise the vital importance of engineering to the nation’s future.  Whatever visions of the future our politicians or scientists may have today, it will be the young engineers of the tomorrow who turn it into reality.