A large part of the recovery from the current crisis will be driven by engineers and the projects they enable. A plan from Engineers Australia maps the opportunity.
It has been clear since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis that engineers would play a central role in the efforts to cope with its effects. From the design and manufacturing of protective equipment and ventilators, to the building of pop-up hospitals and the development of solutions to keep supermarket staff safe, each has required engineering.
Long after the physical threat of infection has passed, engineers will be key to the nation’s recovery efforts.
“Everybody has been searching for ways out of this crisis, ways to do business without putting people at risk, ways to make health workers safe, etc.,” said Associate Professor Sally Male, Chair in Engineering Education at the University of Western Australia.
“Engineers are critical to all of this.
“The beauty of a professional engineer is that they can deal with a previously unseen circumstance with the confidence and skills to develop a solution, using professional judgement. Today, that skill is more critical than ever.”
Putting these skills to use for economic recovery, as well as developing new ways of working to improve engineering practice, is the focus of a new Engineers Australia report titled COVID-19 Recovery: A 9-Point Plan. Released last week, the report sets out key challenges and opportunities for recovery, and discusses how Australia’s engineering profession can be a driving force.
A timeless solution
Jonathan Russell, Engineers Australia’s National Manager, Public Affairs and Policy Advocacy, agreed that engineers have a particularly vital set of skills. Engineers take the applications of science, mathematics and technology to create a useful outcome, he said.
But as we come out of the COVID-19 crisis and into a recovery phase, that outcome, if managed correctly, will be far greater than the apparent sum of its parts.
It will supply thousands of jobs for an extended period of time, which will drive spending and boost the economy. It will provide much needed infrastructure which will also help to support the wellbeing of individuals, communities and businesses. And it will encourage innovation.
“How is that infrastructure pipeline managed correctly? There are two main stages, design and construction,” Russell said.
“For the projects already designed and approved, you just need to pick up a shovel and start working. You employ a lot of people, they all get paid, they spend their money and that’s good for everybody. So we need to get those projects going.”
However, he added that if we focus only on short-term solutions, we simply kick the problem further down the path. But if we concentrate equally on design and construction, we hit the problem out of the park.
“We have to remember that when those projects finish, there will be massive unemployment if we don’t have further projects in the pipeline. If we don’t invest in the design phase, we’ll fall off a cliff when the shovel-ready projects are completed,” Russell said.
“That’s what happened at the end of the mining boom, then five years later employers were lamenting the skills shortage.”
In a way, COVID-19 has been a stress test that has shown us we need to get on with things, Russell said. It has reminded us that we need to act on the social licence to innovate, to come up with better ways of doing things, to deal with issues such as supply chain resilience and climate change.
But first we must get the basics, such as the balance between design and construction, right.
Building a resilient nation
“The point in the plan about resilience is a powerful one,” said Sheldon Krahe, GHD’s General Manager Western Australia.
“We have proven we can work remotely. We mobilised our entire workforce of more than 4000 people in Australia to be able to work from home over a single weekend. So in engineering, we’ve proven we can continue to work collaboratively in a design environment thanks to some clever solutions.”
And speaking of lessons learned, another important point in the Engineers Australia document, Krahe said, is the one about delivering good contract, procurement and payment practices.
“An environment where we can sit together and negotiate consistent, fairer contracts is something the industry is crying out for,” he said.
“Smaller organisations in particular must really struggle. This is a good opportunity to streamline some of the procurement processes, to make them more consistent and fair, and ensure payment terms are reflective of the world we live in, where cash flow is king.”
Look to the young
Finally, it is vital in building the next generation of engineering professionals that firms continue to bring engineering undergraduates on board, as much for the organisations themselves as for the students, Male said.
“Universities have invested heavily in increasing engineering students’ engagement with practice,” she said.
“We have also stressed the importance of exposing students to disruption, and they have now experienced disruption greater than anything we ever could have created for them.”
What is the value of students to business? They don’t have any pre-conceived ideas about the way things have always been done, Male said. They haven’t even seen how things were done in the past, and they’re very good at developing solutions in new environments.
If engineers are good at solving a new challenge, undergraduate and recent graduate engineers might just be the best of the best, she added.
And the industry will need a first-class team on the field as the nation moves into recovery mode.
“COVID-19 has challenged all nations, all industries and every profession,” said Dr Bronwyn Evans, CEO of Engineers Australia.
“Encouragingly, it has been experts in all fields of endeavour that governments and communities have turned to for advice and solutions.
“Engineers have been part of the healthcare response and are also ready to bring their expertise to bear in support of Australia’s efforts to achieve widespread economic recovery. This 9-point plan sets out key criteria for success.”