Engineers and optimism: Now there’s a combo you don’t hear often

As Australia faces its greatest ever engineering skills shortage according to Engineers Australia, new research bridges a crucial knowledge gap about ways to reinforce optimism in civil engineers and retain them in the profession. 

Publishing in American Society of Civil Engineers, researchers from Queensland’s University of Technology surveyed 235 civil engineers to understand the factors which made them feel optimistic, and more likely to stay working as a civil engineer.

The research is timely given only 60% of qualified engineers in Australia work in an engineering role, according to Engineers Australia’s ‘Strengthening the engineering workforce in Australia’ report. 

The organisation argues that in order meet the needs to the clean energy transition, infrastructure pipeline and AUKUS agreement, Australia will not only need to recruit and attract new talent, but also retain existing engineers within the profession. 

Structural engineer and lead author of the QUT research, Sonia Reis, says a lot of research about engineering identity tends to focus on high school or university students.

So she wanted to investigate the experiences of engineering professionals after working 5, 10 or 20 years in the job and the personal, professional and workplace factors with contribute to a sense of career optimism.

“Someone that’s career optimistic is more likely to view things that happen through their career as positive or something that they can impact, and be interested, and actually working towards achieving goals in their career,” Reis says.

“Whereas someone that’s less likely to be optimistic would be more likely to view the exact same event as a negative.”

Many different factors can influence career optimism, including professional collaboration; a sense of altruism, achievement, status or autonomy; years of experience; organisational commitment; flexibility, negotiation and work location; along with career breaks and parenting commitments.

The study surveys civil engineers across Australia ranging in experience from graduate (up to 3 years working as an engineer), early career (4 – 8 years), experienced (9 – 20 years) to senior (more than 20 years’ experience). Most responses (68%) were from male engineers, and 32% were from female and non-binary engineers.

The paper finds the majority (62%) of civil engineers surveyed felt optimistic about a future in engineering, but levels varied depending on years of experience and gender.

“A significant predictor of increased career optimism for all civil engineers, particularly nonmale civil engineers, are the professional engineering skills related to collaboration, teamwork, and communication,” the paper finds.

Reis says, the early career stage is particularly fascinating. It’s a period where engineers wanting to stay in the profession are likely to become chartered, a process which takes time, money and effort. But its also a time where some start to leave engineering.

The survey shows female and non-binary engineers experience a slump in their career optimism at this point (coming off an early high). Whereas at that time, male engineers are experiencing their peak enthusiasm for the job.

The reasons for career optimism during the early career stage also divides along gender lines.

“The younger males would be more likely to be seeking to be seeking achievement and remuneration, recognition and status,” Reis says.

Younger females and non-binary engineers responding to the survey were more likely to be “talking about the collaboration and community within their organisation” and their ability to negotiate the role, she explains.

For males, career optimism largely declines from then on. More experienced engineers are more likely to be looking to be recognised and noticed for their contribution. 

The survey also shows fly-in fly-out work has a major effect on engineer retention. When early career engineers had worked away from home, they were much more likely to consider leaving the engineering profession.

For Reis the many different drivers of professional optimism highlights the need for managers to tailor leadership strategies for engineer employees based on their individual situation.

“Everyone’s pathway is different and everyone’s personality is different. Everyone’s occupational needs are different,” Reis says.

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