Corporate leaders summon unis, industry to address skills imbalance

Focusing on the need of engineers, scientists and mathematicians, Australia's business leaders pointed out that universities are pushing out too many lawyers and commerce graduates. Business Council of Australia has recommended a path of increased co-operation between universities and business to try and address severe imbalances developing in Australia's skills pool. The chair of BCA's Education, Skills and Innovation Task Force, KPMG chairman Michael Andrew, launching a landmark higher education report said that Australia had to put “greater emphasis on teaching outcomes to make sure that they are teaching is relevant to the future workplace”. “You only have to look at what is happening with our shortage of engineers or metallurgists to see that something went wrong within the system in terms of rewards and encouragement that is in place, not being able to predict that trend that is becoming so evident in the skill shortages across those segments.” Despite pricing signal for undergraduates — namely rising salaries for engineers thanks to the mining boom — there was still a shortage of students studying in the field, according to Paul Dougas, chief executive of civil engineering consultancy Sinclair Knight Merz. “Salaries are going up but the entry level for engineering is actually dropping, so the standard is dropping, so that is a concern for the future,” Mr Dougas told the forum. “It is more in terms of the lack of prestige, the lack of it being seen as a very honourable profession and one that is very satisfying.” Gavin Bell, the CEO and managing partner of law firm Freehills, said the legal profession was seeing a reverse of what was happening in the engineering field. He said it was cheaper to teach a law degree than engineering or science. “In the last decade, maybe 15 years, we have seen an increase in the number of law faculties, the number of graduates coming out of law faculties, and also an increase in the tertiary entrance marks,” Mr Bell said. He said a law degree was often seen as a business qualification, noting about 50 per cent graduating lawyers don't go on to practice law. “It is becoming a general business degree, which is beneficial, but it is at the expense of engineering, science, maths, so we do need to be careful we are not sending messages to universities . . . favouring those courses which are cheaper to teach.” And he added that since it was cheaper to teach a law degree than an engineering or science degree, “the situation could get worse”. The BCA members are keen to develop stronger ties with universities and develop more scholarship programs that better aligns the skills shortage with the graduate courses on offered. Mr Dougas said part of the problem stems from a shift in Australia's workplace from one where government's traditional involvement in the development of technical skills in the infrastructure and extractive industries was now falling on the private sector. “The way infrastructure is put together now, governments have, of necessity, downsized,” he told the forum. “You have seen a shift from the public to the private sector in terms of numbers employed . . . the profession has to replace what . . . the government did in terms of scholarships and career development.”

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