This article was originally published by Carolyn Rance in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 20th, 2017. Click here to read the original.
Local government has come under fire in recent years for not doing enough to maintain its engineering skills base as senior engineers reach retirement.
Gordon Brock is director of the Local Government Engineers Association (LGEA), a division of Professionals Australia, the peak body representing engineers, scientists, IT professionals and other technical professionals in the public and private sectors.
He says councils need organisational cultures where the unique skills of engineers are recognised and properly rewarded if they are to attract and retain the workforce needed to ensure high quality engineering services and safe delivery and maintenance of community infrastructure.
Brock says councils need to increase their graduate engineering intake, increase budgets for professional development and implement clearly defined and well remunerated career paths.
“Most importantly, councils should act to ensure that engineers are engaged and involved in decision making at all levels of the organisation, which will foster a culture of respect and recognition and ensure that the councils have adequate technical capacity to meet ongoing challenges,” he says.
Attracting and keeping engineers can be a particular problem in rural municipalities, where infrastructure needs are often large and budgets tight.
At Northern Grampians Shire, infrastructure manager Trenton Fithall says offering holiday placements to engineering undergraduates and recruiting, training and mentoring recent graduates has helped the council maintain its skills base and source replacements for people moving into retirement.
He undertook holiday work with the council during his civil engineering studies at La Trobe University Bendigo and, after graduation, he was offered a full-time position. Last year, at the age of just 26, he became the youngest member of the council’s management team and now leads 72 staff in works, parks, gardens and engineering positions. This year he was a finalist in the annual LGPro Young Achiever award.
Fithall says while many young civil engineers head for mining and infrastructure roles, he enjoys the diversity and community focus of local government and being able to work in the area where he grew up in a farming family, helping out after school and playing local sport.
Initially attracted to the “big shiny life of structural engineering” his initial student placement in local government came about by chance when his mother met a council engineer and mentioned that her son was studying engineering.
Knowing the local area was an advantage and he helped senior staff with surveying for road upgrades and intersection re-alignments.
While more of his work is now office based, he says engineering is a great job for people who want a career that offers a mix of indoor and outdoor work: “You need to be indoors to solve problems so you can be outside to implement them,” he says.
Engineers need to be prepared to keep up their technical skills and adapt to evolving IT but in local government other skills are equally important.
Being able to communicate effectively with stakeholders and colleagues of all ages is critical to success in developing and delivering services. Fithall manages many people who are older than himself and says it still feels challenging being “the young person talking to people with 35 years of experience but I feel they value my input and I think I am easy to talk to.”
He keeps in touch with some of his former fellow students who are travelling and working on large mining and pipeline projects, but is happy with his choice: “I’m a big believer in work life balance and I probably couldn’t have it any better,” he says.