Benefits of entering engineering later in life

Marie Fowler studied in her late-30s as she realised her true passion was in engineering.

When Marie Fowler finished high school she never imagined she would become an engineer. But more than 20 years on, having studied in her late-30s, her engineering degree has proven to be a leap in the right direction.

“When I graduated high school I was in South Africa and university wasn’t an option for me. My family couldn’t afford it. I didn’t expect to be here in Australia, let alone going through university and becoming an engineer. I don’t have any engineers in my family,” said Fowler.

Prior to becoming an engineer, Fowler worked in a variety of roles, predominantly in customer service. From 2007, she worked in a corrections facility, but in 2011 she decided it wasn’t a job she could do long-term.

“I needed something that would challenge me and where I could move up. I did a fair bit of research in different industries and civil engineering was one that kept me coming back. I didn’t know any engineers before I started the course. I really only had a view of what it was like from documentaries,” she said.

Fowler decided to specialise in civil and environmental engineering at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). And at 41 years old, she is embarking on her third year as a graduate civil engineer at Stantec. “I really wanted to do something that would stimulate me and provide me with a career for a long time. There’s always going to be roads and buildings and projects to deliver.”

Demand is rife, as Fowler is in a field with plenty of vacancies nationwide. An Engineers Australia Engineering Vacancies Reports November 2018 explains that civil engineering occupations make up the majority of engineering vacancies throughout Australia. The report investigates the current state of engineering employment in Australia by analysing the direction of change in engineering vacancy numbers. It covers trends in job vacancies to the end of October 2018, including revisions for previous months.

Civil engineering professionals includes civil, geotechnical, structural and transport engineers, and quantity surveyors. The majority of vacancies in all jurisdictions is for civil engineers, except for Western Australia where it is for mining engineers, and the ACT with ICT support and test engineers. In October 2018 there were more than 2,200 civil engineering vacancies in Australia.

The majority of these vacancies are in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Growth in this occupation has been slow but steady for the past two years, growing from 1,727 in October 2016, to 2,232 in October 2018. Industrial and mechanical occupations are the engineering occupation with the second-most vacancies, and the larger states are where most of these vacancies are located.

Specialising in civil engineering

Fowler chose civil engineering for the positive impact it can have on communities. Having a variety of projects, was a bonus she did not expect. “I chose it because there are jobs that have the opportunity to really make an impact and hopefully do something better for the community like building a dam. I’ve worked on the Burdekin Falls Dam safety project, which is one of the largest dams in Queensland,” said Fowler. Burdekin Falls Dam on Lake Dalrymple, holds 1,860,000ml at full capacity. That’s four times the capacity of Sydney Harbour. Now, Fowler is working on a mining site.

“It’s the variety that makes it so different and enjoyable. Right now I’m standing in a mine site, whereas last year I was sitting in an office. I do civil but we touch on geotechnical, electrical and hydrology. It’s a very diverse field and I’m only just scratching the surface of it,” she said.

“Being in consultancy is also why it is so varied. It was a very nice surprise.” Stantec is a global design and delivery firm that employs designers, engineers and scientists to deliver building and infrastructure projects worldwide. The company’s Australian projects included helping develop a plan for new Transit Malls in Gold Coast to prepare for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and reducing potable water by 60 per cent for the master-planned Googong township by planning, designing and delivering an integrated water cycle concept.

“Stantec has a fantastic graduate programme where they help you find your footing. I’m definitely moving forward in the knowledge and growing space,” said Fowler.

Taking the steps to success

Fowler was nominated for the Rising Star of the Year award at the Women in Industry Awards 2018. She said, her name was put forward after her managers recognised the work she’d put into dam safety upgrades and micro tunnelling projects. However, Fowler said it wasn’t an easy decision getting to where she is. When she started studying she was nervous about embarking on a new career and entering an environment often dominated by students much younger than her. But, Fowler was surprised to discover a range of faces in the classroom.   

“It was terrifying walking into university that first day. But, it was a very mixed group when we first started out, our cohort was about 1000 students. There was almost every nationality,” she said. Completing the degree and landing a role at Stantec had helped her gain confidence. “It’s done amazing things for my self-esteem. Engineering is such a fantastic industry.”

However, it’s an industry that continues to go through shortages of skilled workers in Australia. An Australian Department of Jobs and Small Businesses Engineering Professions Australia 2017-18 report showed that “employers experienced greater difficulty recruiting engineering professionals in 2017-18 compared with recent years”. The proportion of vacancies filled, fell from 69 per cent to 59 per cent over the year and the average number of applicants fell from 39.9 per vacancy to 28.9. In 2013-14, 78 per cent of vacancies were filled, but this has been declining year-on-year.  Of those who applied, there were only 2.3 suitable applicants on average per vacancy.

The report indicated that more than 80 per cent of qualified applicants were not considered suitable due to insufficient experience in the engineering profession, lack of experience in a particular specialisation or industry sector, and a lack of employability skills required to do the job.

Fowler said getting more people to consider studying engineering takes education and awareness. “There’s so much more to it than just technical avenues. We have to have a lot of client communication, we have to coordinate between clients and sub-contractors. It’s very much a people based role. That’s probably something that’s misunderstood,” she said.

“Every year I join other graduates in New Zealand and do workshops on public speaking, client management and the soft skills that maybe aren’t covered at university. It’s very diverse.

“People need information on the variety of engineering jobs that are out there. Many don’t understand how engineering impacts everyday life.”

Fowler suggested that high school students take up work experience at councils or engineering firms to get face-to-face with the industry. Engineers could also spread the word by visiting schools to share their experiences, she said.

“If they are interested in something, research it and call up universities. They are very helpful in giving information. There’s always massive career fairs as well.”

Once people decide to embark on an engineering career, Fowler has one key piece of advice. “Stick with it because the reward at the end is totally justified.”

Nominations for Women in Industry 2019 are open. To nominate someone, go to www.womeninindustry.com.au.