The engineering brain drain facing Australia's renewable energy sector
In the race to transition away from fossil fuel power towards green energy, a strong workforce of engineers is deemed critical and there are concerns that Australia's lack of government-subsidised investment in the sector could see our best talent head overseas.
It has been just over a year since Joe Biden accelerated the United States' transition towards renewable energy with his landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), throwing $US400 billion ($624 billion) of investment into America's green energy industry.
Similar models of government-subsidised investment towards renewables are now being implemented around the world; the EU has introduced a package that includes $US369 billion ($560 billion) of subsidies for clean energy technology and production. Canada's budget this year also introduced new renewable energy tax incentives.
Meeting at the Australian Renewable Industry summit on Monday, a coalition of Australian renewable industry groups accused the federal government of being too slow in its response to the IRA and have "urgently" called on the government to inject $100b in the sector.
Engineers Australia chief engineer Jane MacMaster told The Drum that if Australia did not match the level of government subsidies of competing economies, we risked losing our critical workforce and failing to meet our climate goals. 
"There is no greater priority for Australia than reducing emissions and ensuring we get the clean energy transition in the timescale and urgency that we need," Ms MacMaster said.
"If we don't develop the engineering workforce to keep pace with demand, it means that it's going take longer to reach our objectives and we all know that there is no time to waste anymore, especially when it comes to the energy transition."
Engineers Australia says Australia is facing its "greatest-ever" engineering skills shortage and estimates the nation will need an extra 50,000 engineers over the next few years.
Australia has two main sources of engineers; students who choose to study engineering at university and skilled migrant workers.
Census data from 2021 revealed that more than 70 per cent of the additional engineers that joined the workforce between 2016 and 2021 were from overseas.
Currently, 35 per cent of Australia's engineer graduates do not enter the profession, adding additional stress to the sector.
Ms MacMaster warned that more needed to be done to attract migrant talent and keep graduates in the profession.
"We know that sectors are competing with each other in Australia, we know that states are competing with each other for engineers and we know that other countries are competing with each other for engineers," Ms MacMaster said. 
"When counties like the US introduced the IRA and other countries like Canada are strengthening their immigration systems, Australia has to be very mindful that there are these initiatives overseas attracting our workers."
The UTS Institute of Sustainable Futures last year found Australia needs 12,000 new workers in renewable energy by 2025.
CEO of the Business Chamber Queensland, Heidi Cooper, told The Drum that if Australia was to ramp up its investment in clean energy projects and capability, it would be necessary to ensure the country had the skills to match demand.
"We must be investing in our people, that's an absolute necessity," Ms Cooper said.
"When I hear things like 'brain drain', that is the absolute worst scenario. We want to keep our talent here in Australia but we also want to be attracting talent as well and that's going to require investment."
Ms MacMaster said engineers would be critical at "all stages of the energy transition space".
"Roles could range from being involved in the research of new technology, planning and policy stages, it could be in design of hydrogen, wind farms, offshore wind and solar and importantly how we integrate that into the national energy market," she said.
Partner in Climate Change & Sustainability Services at EY, Adam Carrel, told The Drum that Australia would be subject to an over-reliance on the US if a similar investment scheme to the IRA was not adopted.  
"If we don't invest in our industry here, we will reproduce the old economic model of Australia into the future and we will be the quarry of the world that will dig it and slip it and make a certain number of Australians very rich but it will not equitably distribute that income," Mr Carrel said. 
"It will mean we become a vassal state of the IRA and it will be homegrown domestic industries in America that will benefit from our quarry.
"The people who made money out of the goldmines were the ones who sold the shovel doesn't accord with economic history at all — and if you look at those with their benefit during that period, it was through creation and manufacturing.
"The sustainable reindustrialisation of our economy is one that absolutely has to be done off an equitable basis, so the worst thing we could do would be to fall back into our more comfortable modes of economic activity here because that is what disproportionately increases wealth."
To attract and retain engineers in a globally competitive market, Ms MacMaster suggests two things.
"We need to encourage and inspire more Australian students to study and work in engineering, and we need to make it easier for overseas-born engineers to come to Australia and have their qualifications recognised," she said.
"Currently only around half our overseas-born engineers are working in an engineering role, that's a huge number of qualified engineers in Australia who aren't currently working as engineers. We need to do better for our skilled migrant engineers who are here and need to find a job."
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