Skills shortages in local government in Australia

Richard Usher
National Manager - Skills Shortages
Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia
Sydney, NSW

Australia is often called the lucky country. And in 2006, we really are lucky because of the resource and engineering boom that is currently underway. Economic activity is unparalleled, largely built on the rise of the Chinese economy and their insatiable appetite for Australia's raw materials. The country's (and the world's) biggest mining giant, BHP Billiton, has ridden the Chinese Dragon all the way to a record Australian company profit of more than $A13.7 billion (US$10 billion) for 2005-06 smashing the previous Australian record by more than $A7 billion (US$5 billion). This has been powered by record contributions from its iron ore, nickel, alumina and oil and gas operations, particularly in Western Australia.

BHP Billiton is not alone in sharing in these prosperous times. Many mining, resource and engineering companies are experiencing the bonanza. New projects flourish, work is plentiful, salaries rise, unemployment amongst the technical workforce in Australia appears to be a thing of the past, and suddenly we hear the cry "skills shortage."

Anecdotal evidence suggests many companies are paying "sign-on" bonuses and "project completion" bonuses to attract and keep staff. Pay, salaries and conditions are being reviewed several times a year instead of the more usual once a year. With that sort of scenario, small wonder that public works engineers and their technical workforce have been eyeing the greener pastures of the mining and resource industries.

Last year the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA) National Board became aware of the growing vacancy list for engineering staff and the difficulty councils were having in recruitment. This appeared to be a classic skills shortage environment.

From left to right at the IPWEA booth during a Careers Fair: Richard Usher, IPWEA National Manager for Skills Shortages and Martyn Glover, IPWEA Western Australia Director, talk with a student interested in a career in public works.

The National Board also looked at the large number of Baby Boomers who will retire in the next few years and the difficulty being experienced in attracting Generation X and Y into local government engineering. So IPWEA decided to set up a special project to help every local government engineer.

A part-time project manager was appointed to look at three initial areas. Firstly to look at methods of how to attract young people into the profession, second to look at the existing workforce and ways to keep them, and thirdly to look at those who are either about to retire or at retirement, and how to entice them to stay a little longer.

The Australian government regulations on employment, taxation, retirement and immigration are fundamental to our success, and therefore IPWEA has retained its strong links to all appropriate governmental departments. Some government assistance may be on the horizon too as the national government acknowledges the shortage of engineers across the industry.

IPWEA's National Skills Shortage Project (NSSP) is gathering pace. Many guideline documents have now been developed to assist local government engineers to attract students into public works engineering. All documents contain a "step by step" guide which allows for the planning of a careers day, to offer a cadetship or a scholarship, etc. Documents on mentoring and work experience are proving popular. The guidelines and templates have been developed across a wide range of issues to help engineers attract the staff they need. The guidelines and templates are available for download at

"New Ways of Working" Project
The focus of IPWEA actions to date has been to address the skills shortage looking at the supply issues of the labour market. However, there is another side of the equation that hasn't been explored to date: What potential is there to reduce the demand for engineering staff?

A new key result area called "New Ways of Working" has been added to the IPWEA National Skills Shortage Strategy. New Ways of Working could have a significant impact on the skills shortage by freeing up engineering staff to do more "engineering."

This has been a key issue also identified by the Planning Institute of Australia which has seen significant increases in demand for planning staff because of the complexity (red tape) of planning legislation in various states. There is now a new emphasis on the use of planning assistants, training for planning assistants, and increased use of administrative staff, initiatives to reduce red tape and simplifying planning requirements.

An initiative to take the "new ways of working" forward that IPWEA is exploring is to undertake a project addressing the demand side of the issue for engineering. The project could be based around an analysis of the work of the professional engineer and engineering team working in local government:

  • Looking at options for doing more with less (people)
  • Impediments to efficient use of the "engineering team"
  • Work methods and job redesign
  • Use of new technology
  • Identifying existing examples of innovation and "new ways of working" already being used in the industry
  • Considering the use of shared services where a group of smaller councils come together on a regional basis to pool staff resources.

Our industry has a long way to go but IPWEA is implementing a national strategy to tackle the issue. We need to ensure there are enough engineers and other technical staff to keep community infrastructure safe and in good hands. It does seem, however, that we will continue to face significant challenges into the future to do "more with less."

For more information, contact Richard Usher at, or visit IPWEA's Skill Shortages webpage at


"Ants—they aren't strong, but they store up food for the winter." - Proverbs 30:25 2.

"If a spider is lazy and motionless, then it will rain soon." - Russian Proverb

"Crickets are accurate thermometers; they chirp faster when warm and slower when cold." - American Proverb

"Winter comes fast on the lazy." - Irish Proverb

"Every mile is two in winter." - Author: George Herbert