Moving forward after COVID-19

COVID-19 Recovery: A 9-Point Plan, a document released by Engineers Australia in May, is designed to give a helping hand to those engineering businesses and government that might need a sense of direction after the pandemic has run its course.

When an event like COVID-19 occurs, one of the key considerations is how to get the economy up and running again, and this nine-point plan sets out how this can be achieved.

Key tenets of the document include making sure companies carry out maintenance, keep focusing on infrastructure projects, invest in local communities, and look after staff. It is a positive take on what can come out of such an event that is unprecedented in modern times.

Jonathan Russell is Engineer Australia’s national manager for Public Affairs and Policy Advocacy, and he has been keeping an eye on the outcomes that have been borne from the pandemic.

One piece of data that the organisation has access to is job vacancy trends, which comes from the Commonwealth government, who garner the information from the Internet from such websites as Seek.com.au. Russell points out that the figure is not an absolute number because not all jobs are advertised on Seek or other Internet sites.

“However, it is a trend,” said Russell. “When we look at data, the job vacancies have been trending down for 12 months. Then we looked at the data in March and it hadn’t started to trend down too much. Then we looked at the data in April and there was a marked drop in job vacancies. A fall in 13 per cent in one month.”

Another trend that Russell believes will be around for some time is working from home. Not all people will be able to do it, he said – after all tradie-type jobs are hands-on. But he is sure that in one form or another, working remotely is here to stay.

“The sentiment that we’re getting across the board (from members) is that this notion that you can’t work remotely, and that everybody has to work from a central location, is not true,” said Russell. “COVID-19 has unintentionally been a global experiment in remote working. Some people are making bold predictions that the office is dead. Other people are saying things will go back to the way it was. I think it is going to be somewhere in the middle. It is possible to do a decent chunk of one’s work without being in the office.”

One thing Russell is clear on, is that COVID-19 has brought up other issues that will have to be addressed.

“COVID-19 is only half of the story. The other half is the economic fallout, including the threat from Chinese trade action, which is ostensibly in response to Australian government arguments for the pandemic to be investigated thoroughly,” he said. “When those sorts of things threaten to affect education which is our third biggest export earner, then you’ve got to think how to adapt if the economy is going on a sustained downward trajectory. Again, we don’t know if that is going to be the reality. It’s another one of those cases where we probably won’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.”

If it does happen, a trait that Australia is well known for will kick in – resilience – and Engineers Australia knows what needs to be done according to its plan. “A comprehensive industry policy is…needed, with focuses on: strategic engagement in international rules setting groups, such as international standards bodies; support for scaling up existing manufacturing industries; and, development of on-shore capabilities for manufacturing and materials supply. Together, these will invigorate the domestic economy and improve supply chain resilience.”

Russell believes all these things are achievable, especially as we now start in a recovery phase and if there is no resurgence of the virus. When will that recovery occur?

“People talk about a V-shaped or U-shaped recovery, I suppose it doesn’t matter what indicator you are looking at we are probably all going to see the data go down for a while yet,” he said. “Then it will either plateau for a little bit or go straight back up again, but we won’t know if it is a V or U-shaped curve until at least the end of the year.”

While overall, the organisation is happy with the both federal and state governments’ reaction to the pandemic, there are lessons that need to be learned.

“It seemed to take a while for the Commonwealth government, and to a lesser degree the state governments, to take it seriously,” said Russell. “The initial stimulus package seemed a bit light. Once they realised they had to go all in on this response, then it was sudden. Then the size of the stimulus package was enormous and the degree of restrictions of movement was extreme. I think when most people heard that China was locking down its country, we thought about Australia and thought ‘good luck doing it here’.”

It’s all well and good for a country like China to shut down a whole country, said Russell, but he thinks many people didn’t imagine Australia would do so, or that the population would willingly oblige.

“In retrospect it makes sense that Australia also successfully controlled people’s movement. We’re a country of people who understand the rule of law, and we’re community minded, so we just did it,” said Russell. “Overall they dealt with it effectively. The interaction between states and Commonwealth was pretty good although there were points of friction. The big lesson for the Commonwealth and States is to realise that they need to be clearer around what their respective roles and responsibilities are in a whole-of-nation response in any difficult situation.”

And where does Russell see Australia in the next one to two years? Will there be a recovery or will it still be a lot of tentativeness around where the economy and primary industry will be heading?

“I think there is no question in that the engineering profession as a whole, and the nation as a whole, will pop out the other end in a year or two, in a good place,” he said. “COVID-19 has been a stress test of the systems we have in place as a nation. It’s a stress test on the ability to do work. It’s a stress test on the technology we rely on. It’s done a similar test on international trade. It’s tested the resilience of all the global interconnected systems. By and large, the world has gotten on with business. There has been untold tragedy in some countries, including Australia for those that have lost loved ones or their income, however the health costs haven’t been as bad as they could have been.

“That transition back to an economy working on its own merits without broadscale government support packages is going to be the next wobble, or test of how well we’ve done. Long-term, the profession, the economy and society as a whole will come out the other end stronger than ever.”