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Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Professional services groups get with the times to find younger members

Published 27 February 2013 23:14, Updated 27 February 2013 23:16

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Professional services groups get with the times to find younger members

Builder: Engineers Australia president Marlene Kanga says the changing circumstances of engineers are forcing changes on the professional body. Photo: Louise Kennerley

In the five years to 2011, the number of people with recognised engineering degrees in Australia grew 31.5 per cent to 263,890, the latest census figures show. Over the same period, the membership of Engineers Australia rose a slower 20.4 per cent to 97,306. The disparity has Marlene Kanga worried.

Kanga, who took over for a one-year term as EA president last month, says the body has to lift its game.

“We need to move with the times, become more contemporary and more relevant to the profession,” she says. “The environment is changing, society is changing and people are demanding more. So they are asking, ‘Why should we join?’ People no longer value the credentials as highly as before.”

It’s not surprising that a profession that has seen such a surge in demand as a result of the resources boom and rapidly increasing global movement of its members is coming under pressure.

The changing circumstances of engineers are forcing changes on the professional body that for decades has given them professional development, a peer structure and a political voice.

And the choice facing EA – as with equivalent organisations in other disciplines – is to stick with a business model that worked in the past, or shake it up to stay relevant.

“The model that was set up, which dates back possibly to the ’50s and ’60s was to have a metropolitan, CBD-based organisation where events were held in a central office location but what’s happened is we’ve had this huge mining boom and we’ve had more and more engineers working in regional Australia,” Kanga says.

Professional and industry associations in Australia are so numerous that they have their own “association of associations” in the form of Sydney-based Associations Forum. Predominantly industry, professional and special interest associations, the forum’s 460 members face an increasing challenge to remain relevant, general managerJohn Peacock says.

“The internet has meant that there are competitors offering networking, information, education and communications, whereas associations once had this space to themselves,” he says. Nor does geography guarantee relevancy. “Separate state and territory associations with a smaller membership base, such as Tasmania, ACT and the Northern Territory, will struggle the most and will need to consider merging with their larger interstate counterparts,” Peacock says.

The task for larger organisations responsible for a wide spread of disciplines is harder. They have to keep on top of the needs of a diverse group which may, for example, be all engineers but have very little in common. The task is easier for smaller discipline-based groups whose members all have a common focus but it is not a luxury EA has, given its responsibility for upholding professional standards across a range of disciplines and assessing the qualifications of foreign visa applicants.

Some general bodies are better at segmenting their members and providing relevant information, while others bombard members with a welter of irrelevant material, the director of benchmarks at professions consultancy Beaton, Mel Chee, says.

“Some bodies are better at saying, ‘We will collect information on our members and get them to update what they are interested in’,” she says.

Engineers Australia has been through a number of changes since it began life as the Institution of Engineers,  Australia, in 1919.

It continued the evolution last year under new chief executive Stephen Durkin and this year it will have a new membership management system, as well as an online-only process to allow members to make the transition
from graduate to fully accredited chartered status.

“We’re playing catch-up,” Kanga says.

Just has businesses have to evolve to stay relevant, professional bodies are bringing people with financial, legal and human resources skills onto their boards. “The whole sector is getting more professional in the way that they’re managed,” Consult Australia chief executive, Megan Motto, says. “They’re not old boys’ clubs or knitting circles any more.”

Different organisations face different environments. While the problem for EA is retaining validity for members in a time of great growth, architecture has faced similar challenges despite its exposure to the other side of Australia’s two-speed economy. Change remains necessary, however. Five years ago, an Australian Institute of Architects survey of its members revealed an association that was doing little to reach into the ranks of the profession’s salaried architects. “We found the core of membership, 80 per cent of corporate members – as individuals registered, able to be registered as architects – were the business owners, directors and associates of the firm,” chief executive David Parken says.

“Apart from our student membership and a few graduates, we were really the institute of decision-making architects, rather than covering the employees.”

The underlying reason, he says, was that firms tended to pay the AIA membership fees of senior practice members, from associate upwards. The average joining age of a full member – not a graduate or student – was between 42 and 44. Representation among younger practitioners was thin.

“Gen X or Y are not really joiners,” Parken says.

“We build up this organisation that’s going to be inherited by the next generation. But we’re not necessarily engaging with them. We run the risk of starting a spiral down . . . losing membership.”

We build up this organisation that’s going to be inherited by the next generation. But we’re not necessarily engaging with them.

Generation X and Y architects were, it turned out, joiners – but not of the institute. They had separate groupings, such as the New Architects Group in South Australia, Darch in NSW and Young Architects Qld. The institute made contact with these groups, offered funding and with them created a new body called EmAGN (“imagine”), the Emerging Architects + Graduates Network. Next month the institute’s council will vote on changing its articles of association to give EmAGN a seat on the council.

“It was quite a big step for us as a conservative 82-year-old industry association for architects,” Parken says with a laugh.“We have 10000 engineers in Queensland - not necessarily our members - and we’ve got 10 per cent of our paid members, our corporate members, are based internationally,” she says

At the same time, the institute has overhauled its membership structure. If firms pay the membership fees of all qualifying staff, they can now do so for half the $880 annual fee per person. The AIA has digitised all its publications to make them available online for members and entered into a bulk-buying deal to give members digital access to resources such as the Australian building code standards.

“This has been an incredible step forward to help with the value proposition of being a member of the institute,” Parken says. “You’ve got directors, associates, employees able to access digital tools relevant to their daily practice. That’s a really big thing.”

Over the past three years, membership numbers have jumped to 11500 from 9500.

At the much bigger Engineers Australia, Kanga is keen to see similar changes take place. The organisation must provide resources that are accessible for members wherever they are and networking opportunities that are worthwhile for members. The overhaul of its membership management system and new online offerings will be crucial parts of that. After all, things aren’t the way they once were.

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