Talking to local government representatives in recent weeks has made one thing very clear to me: our councils are facing unprecedented strain. And there doesn’t seem to be a cure-all in sight.
The past two years has been relentless: historic bushfires tore across large swathes of the country in early 2020, and the pandemic struck soon after.
The infrastructure spending in the Federal Government’s recent budget was a welcome development, but now councils must figure out how to deliver these ambitious projects using their existing workforces.
Every council department is stretched. But no-one has been impacted more than our local government engineers and asset managers.
Engineers and asset managers were already in short supply pre-pandemic. Now, 80 per cent of NSW councils are experiencing skills shortages in engineering, asset management and/or planning, according to Local Government NSW’s most recent skills report.
Relief may come from skilled migration. But when, exactly, is unclear. The re-opening of international borders is just the first step.
IPWEA’s five-step plan to support public works engineers
For the time being, we must find solutions ourselves. That’s why IPWEA has developed a five-point plan to support local government engineers. We are committing to this plan. In the weeks and months ahead, we hope others in our sector will join us.
1. Acknowledge the situation
Our councils are under strain, and although there is pressure to get back to ‘business as usual’, it’s important to acknowledge that we may not return to normal as soon as COVID restrictions lift. This is especially true for our engineers and asset managers, whose to-do lists have lengthened significantly over the past two years.
2. Train our workforce
We cannot simply buy in expertise from overseas. The pandemic has taught us that relying solely on external help is foolhardy. Instead, we need to help our existing workforce upskill. IPWEA will assist by actively promoting and strengthening its current Education Pathway courses and developing new ones for areas such as asset tracking.
3. Promote our profession
Over the medium term, we must develop a pipeline of talent by promoting municipal engineering and asset management as exciting and rewarding careers. IPWEA has a role to play here. Over the coming months, we will reach out to education stakeholders.
4. Explain our importance
Functional local government is vital, but the wider Australian community doesn’t always appreciate everything councils do – particularly when it comes to infrastructure. IPWEA will help spread the word through partnerships and media, and we encourage councils not to be shy about doing the same.
5. Support each other
After the past two years, every worker in Australia deserves a pat on the back. But while many Australians are regaining freedoms and rediscovering work-life balance, the challenge for people in public works is just beginning. IPWEA will continue to provide professional support to our members and focus our energies on making their lives easier.
In an era of increasing natural disasters and general uncertainty, local government has never been more important. Future-proofing Australia won’t succeed without the collective expertise of councils and their engineers.
We all must make efforts to maintain and strengthen the public works profession, starting with these five steps.