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Auto engineers call for urgent action

Australia faces skills shortages and job losses as auto engineers reach crisis point

6 May 2014

ENGINEERING representatives are urging industry and government to address looming professional skills shortages and job losses in Australia as the three remaining car-makers begin to wind down their manufacturing operations.

Ford has committed to a significant engineering presence in Australia beyond 2016 and General Motors announced last week that it had reversed its decision to close Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground in South Gippsland.

However, Holden’s work on international vehicle programs will be heavily curtailed and about 60 staff members at the proving ground will lose their job by the end of 2017, reducing the Lang Lang workforce to around 80 employees.

A large number of product engineers at Holden’s Port Melbourne head office are still facing redundancy, and industry representatives have grave concerns about the future of Toyota’s technical centre in Melbourne, which employs around 140 people.

Engineering professionals from the broader automotive industry, including the supply chain, are also now considering their options, which include leaving Australia for jobs overseas.

The union representing Holden’s engineers, Professionals Australia, said last week that even with GM’s decision to keep Lang Lang open, around 700 engineers and related staff will be made redundant by 2017.

“Professionals Australia understands a number of Holden engineers have been offered jobs in Detroit,” said Professionals Australia CEO Chris Walton.

“The decision of GM to offer jobs proves they are highly regarded. But governments should fight to avoid losing their skills.

“Holden’s engineering operations and the automotive engineers at Port Melbourne are world leaders. They have proven they can engineer vehicles for the world.

“There is no business case to tear this down.” The Society of Automotive Engineers – Australasia (SAE-A) revealed last week that it had mounted a campaign to keep local engineers employed here to prevent a brain drain, even before the car manufacturing industry closes in 2017.

SAE-A chief executive Natalie Roberts told GoAuto on the sidelines of the society’s annual general meeting in Melbourne that she was aware of a number of engineers who had already been hired away to other countries, and that overseas recruiters were busily advertising for engineers.

Demand is understood to be strong not only in Asia, but also in North America and Europe.

“The SAE-A has noted a sharp increase in the number of overseas companies advertising in Australia seeking automotive engineers for international postings,” Ms Roberts said.

“A number of foreign companies currently have talent scouts in or heading to Australia, interviewing engineers for overseas jobs.

“Their skills are extremely portable because their qualifications are internationally recognised.” While experience showed that many engineers eventually returned to Australia, Ms Roberts said a “large percentage” stayed overseas, representing a permanent loss that is detrimental to national development.

She emphasised that many professional engineers and technicians were being made redundant now as design and development work comes to an end on vehicles that will be built out to 2017 at the latest.

The society has already approached Victorian minister for manufacturing David Hodgett with a plan designed to find jobs for Australian engineers facing redundancy.

Ms Roberts said the proposal, which aims to help automotive engineers transition to other industries, received a “very positive” reception from the minister, who said he would discuss the matter with with federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane and Victorian minister for higher education and skills Nick Wakeling.

A key part of the plan is to compile a ‘skills map’ to show how skills created in the automotive sector can be applied to other industry sectors. Ms Roberts said engineers could be used in a variety of other industries that might not initially appear prospective.

Engineers would also be given one-on-one assistance to help develop their resumes, receive mentoring, practice interview techniques and learn about opportunities in new sectors.

Meanwhile, Professionals Australia has called on the federal and Victorian governments to support a proposal that Holden engineers have put to GM.

“The Holden engineers have a compelling case to at least keep a niche advanced engineering research and development centre in Australia,” Mr Walton said.

“GM can leverage off mature relationships that already exist with organisations such as the CSIRO, Deakin University, RMIT and Monash University to achieve significant advancement in vehicle features, advanced materials and technologies that can be used in GM vehicles all around the world.

“We must not forget the important role that automotive engineering plays in our economy. Automotive engineering feeds innovation, the creation of new industries and the transformation of old industries.

“As we move toward losing 45,000 jobs in our economy, we can’t afford to lose a sector that is pivotal to creating the future.

“Maintaining a highly skilled engineering workforce in Australia is key for a full range of industries that rely on the design skills which only these technical professionals hold.

“Australia’s automotive engineering sector is globally competitive. It’s vital for our economy and our future. That’s why we want Holden and the government to come together to keep it.” During the SAE-A’s annual meeting, Ms Roberts said the society had dipped into the red during the 2013 financial year, losing $65,505 (previously a profit of $12,111).

She said the poor result reflected a small drop in membership and, more importantly, reduced revenue from events and seminars due to there being fewer of these events.

Ms Roberts said the society had already implemented cuts that would reduce expenditures by $67,000 in a full year.

The SAE-A conducted a strategic review when Ms Roberts started as chief executive in August 2013.

The review looked at which areas in the transport sector in Australia which had engineering design, research, development and manufacturing activities.

Areas identified included heavy commercial vehicles, aerospace, rail and also some unique Australian strengths such as the 4WD off-road component sector in addition to caravans and trailers.

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