A pathway into Engineering for Indigenous Australia

In June, the engineering industry came together with education providers, professional bodies and policy leaders at the inaugural National Indigenous Engineering Summit. Hosted by the Melbourne School of Engineering, this two day event marked a critical step in the journey toward increasing Indigenous participation across the engineering profession.

Summit organisers set out to identify the key obstacles to Indigenous Australians becoming Professional Engineers, with the aim of creating a pathway around these barriers to achieve demographic parity by 2030.

While the last decade has seen a 52% increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders enrolling in tertiary education, the statistics for enrolment in engineering are far less healthy. Indigenous Australians represent just 0.5% of total engineering students, falling well short of the 3% target.

These numbers highlight that while we have come a long way, there is a lot yet to be done.

The last 12 months have seen a 42% increase in indigenous children moving into out of home care due to issues ranging from drug abuse to family violence. Such day to day disadvantage of Indigenous Australians often stems from generational unemployment. The single best mechanism for breaking this cycle is education.

A key barrier to engineering is the lack of school students taking up maths and science subjects. The National Partners for Pathways initiative, enabled through a Commonwealth grant and led by The University of Melbourne, aims to devise strategies to promote pathways into engineering and remove barriers for students who do not have these pre-requisites.

University of Melbourne alumnus and former Sinclair Knight Merz, Chief Executive Officer Professor Paul Dougas, leads the Partners for Pathways program. “Indigenous engineers are part of the conversation and providing input into the building of the pathways. They are Engineers and have gone through the journey into Engineering,” Professor Dougas said.

We heard from a number of practising Indigenous Engineers throughout the summit who agreed that education was the key to a better future for themselves and their families. Another key theme that emerged throughout the summit and among the Indigenous Engineers was the influence of mentors in their formative years.

“These Engineers can now be mentors to current students coming through the ranks and are able to provide advice on what barriers and experiences they had to help build a tangible pipeline into the profession,” Professor Dugas explained.

The collective vision echoed across the summit was to build a different type of engineering for the future, engineering that sees a high representation of indigenous Australians as the norm and engineering that is as socially and culturally engaged as it is technically.

The Honourable Natalie Hutchins, Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs suggested that understanding the high level of connectedness between the First Australians and the land itself is key.

The impact of decisions made by Engineers in both the design and specification processes is profound and often irreversible, especially when these decisions become contractual requirements.

There are many projects, especially in the resources sector in remote locations that are of significant cultural importance to the traditional owners. These projects often hold real, local employment opportunities for traditional owners but such roles are usually taken by Fly-in Fly-out staff at the higher technical levels.

Several major resource companies are showing the way in providing employment opportunities to locals, especially at lower skill and knowledge levels with some outstanding examples of Indigenous Engineers in key roles.

Until recently, there was little or no consideration of the environmental impact of what we were designing and specifying in terms of engineering the land. However, today, large projects never commence without a comprehensive evaluation of environmental impact and any remediation required.

Perhaps in a decade or two, the community will benefit from having a similarly deeper understanding of, and commitment to, the impact of our actions on our First Peoples and our shared land.

For that to happen we need to get more Indigenous students into engineering studies.

The Summit concluded with a National statement of intent; a commitment to the future.

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One Comment

  1. Peter T Jones (B.E.E. 1952) says:

    I was interested to read of the efforts to introduce more indigenous students into engineering studies. I have been living and working among tribal people here in India for more than 50 years and my experience matches some of the comments expressed. Because of the family and social backgrounds of the indigenous people, they get little exposure to logical and reasoning thought processes, when they are young. They are therefore somewhat handicapped when they come in contact with the challenges of an education system that in many ways is based on these processes.
    An effective system of mentoring will surely help, and needs to be in operation from the beginning of the child’s schooling career. The mentoring should be at a personal level, so that those with the ability and aptitudes are detected early, and helped and encouraged through their time in school and university.
    I hope your efforts with the indigenous students prove to be fruitful and more of them enter the engineering profession.

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