Attracting young and new people to public works

Ross Moody
National President
Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA)

Attracting young and new people generally into public works as a career is a major issue to APWA, IPWEA and I expect to our kindred organizations in other developed countries. While I cannot profess to have the answers, I can't help thinking that history provides some clues to what we need to be doing to redress the trend. In this article the focus will be on the engineering profession which forms the basis of the Institute in Australia.

Over the past decade public works has been subject to much change. In particular we have witnessed:

  • Deprofessionalisation and the increased use of technicians to fill what was previously the job of a professional engineer

We have seen a tendency in modern society and particularly in public works agencies toward the diminished regard for the advice of qualified professionals. When this is combined with economic rationalism, the result has led to technical professionals being replaced in management positions by people with little or no qualifications.

Deprofessionalisation may have also resulted in the loss of professional expertise and an aging professional group. This has not been helped by the worldwide phenomenon of outsourcing and contracting out. With the graying of professionals also comes the danger of a wealth of knowledge and experience not being passed on before people retire.

  • Outsourcing of traditional public works functions and a focus on the business "bottom line"

The focus on the bottom line has been at the expense of cadetships, vacation employment and work experience and may have produced short-term gain but at the expense of long-term pain in that we no longer have these avenues available to attract people into the profession. Cadetships in particular provided the important opportunity to learn on the job and seek formal qualifications at the same time.

  • A lowering of community awareness of the roles and responsibilities of public works professionals

Engineering is not evident to the public let alone public works engineering. The profession does not generally come to the notice of the public until something goes wrong—then it causes public inconvenience. So when the profession does become evident it is seen in a negative light—this makes it more difficult to sell public works engineering as an attractive industry to work in.

  • Massive technology change and the emergence of more appealing "careers of excitement" have contributed to the reduced student intake in engineering and science

Having identified some of the issues that have contributed to the current shortage of professionals in public works, what is the answer and what can we do as individuals as professionals in APWA or IPWEA and at our place of employment to make a difference?

As I said at the start, I can't help thinking that the key to changing the trend may well be evident from examining what the industry is not doing now that we did in the past.

As an industry body we can:

  • Get involved in the education curriculum by working with teachers and providing material to stimulate interest and an understanding of what we do.

  • Participate in careers nights at schools.

  • Take the opportunities when they arise to be proactive in the community about public works and the role of professionals.

  • Provide mentoring for young and new people in our organizations.

  • Influence industry employers to recognize a problem exists and what they can do to reverse the trend, including a return to the fundamentals that were aimed at attracting young people into a professional or industry career such as cadetships, vacation employment and work experience.

Each of these can provide a young person with a valuable insight into the industry and, if reintroduced, could contribute to reversing the employment trend in public works.

My first exposure to local government was in the last two years of university when I was offered the opportunity of summer vacation employment. The university had traditionally worked with local government in arranging vacation employment that would give the graduating engineer the experience to admit them to the Institution of Engineers Australia. The work experience also exposed me to local government and well 26 years after graduating I am still in the industry!.

My employer still offers vacation work experience to students studying civil engineering, but how many others do? Certainly there are no In my home state of Western Australia there are no agreements in place between the industry bodies and the universities or technical colleges regarding student employment that I am aware of. As peak industry bodies we can seek agreements with employer bodies and universities, but I believe it will still take action at the individual employer front linecoal face to make it happen. The first step for individuals is to include the funds in your budgets and put the case to the decision makers to ensure they stay there.

Another area that proved very effective in the past was cadetships. Similar to apprenticeships, they provided a platform of work experience to support a person prepared to study and gain formal qualifications at the same time. Public works agencies such as the state road authorities in Australia provided a thorough training ground for engineers and were a constant source of engineering professionals for local government.

Public works agencies are not much different to the private sector in worrying about their bottom line and their competitiveness. Therefore the issue of vacation employment for students and cadetships will require an industry-wide move to ensure a "level playing field," i.e., all employers being required to meet the same obligations.

In Australia a new initiative has begun in our smallest state of Tasmania where a group of business people have banded together to create the Beacon Foundation. Beacon is a not-for-profit organization that seeks to address youth unemployment in new and innovative ways. The Beacon approach is based on partnerships with employers and industry bodies seeking commitment to ensuring all secondary school graduates either go on to another level of education or are employed.

We all complain about the lack of young people entering the profession and we have found plenty of governments, institutions and public agencies to blame. Our criticisms may be well founded, but what proactive action have we taken as a profession? As professionals we need to accept some personal responsibility for redressing the trends and not see it as someone else's problem. If we are to reverse the trend we need to use whatever influence we have in our own organizations to plant the seed. Whether your position is CEO, Executive/Director, Manager or employee, you can play a part.

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Cross-Cultural Quiz

1. In Japan, tapping one's finger on the desk or table may signify

(a) Disagreement with the speaker's comments
(b) Agreement with the speaker's comments
(c) One is bored and ready to leave

2. In an Islamic country, one may insult the audience by

(a) Showing the sole of his foot
(b) Bowing to the audience
(c) Shaking hands with someone prior to speaking

3. How many people around the world speak English as their first language?

(a) 875 million
(b) 350 million
(c) 200 million

4. Which country shares the most borders with neighboring countries?

(a) China
(b) Russia
(c) Brazil

Cultural Proverbs:

"An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep." — Arab Proverb

"He who doesn't risk never gets to drink champagne." — Russian Proverb

"If you want to be respected, you must respect yourself." — Spanish Proverb

"One meets his destiny often in the road he takes to avoid it." — French Proverb

Answers to Cross-Cultural Quiz:

1. Agreement with the speaker's comments. It's a form of applause.
2. The sole of his foot.
3. 350 million. That makes it the third-most popular language, behind Mandarin Chinese and Hindi.
4. China. China shares its border with 15 other countries. Russia has 14, and Brazil has 10.