Engineering Firm Foundations

What you want, really, really want is…. To be an engineer!?!

You’ve got to be joking, of course I mean, engineering… that’s really boring, isn’t it. Working on a production line, doing the same repetitive stuff every day.

Talk about brain dead! And it can be really dirty too … who wants to end up with ingrained grease under their finger nails?

Can you imagine going clubbing smelling of cutting fluid … what a passion killer! The pay’s pretty awful too - if you can get a job, British industry’s just about dead, they say. And anyway, you’re a girl … engineering’s something guys do…. Mostly the boring, thick ones too. You must be really weird if you want to do engineering…

So… did you fall for it, all this rubbish about engineering? If you did, then you’re not alone. Ask the average man or woman in the street what they think engineering is, or what engineers do, and you’re likely to get a picture rather like that painted above. There are lots of very powerful myths about engineering ingrained in the public perception … let’s see if we can debunk a few of these.

Myth number one: engineering is low-level, manual, "hands-on" work, often repetitive and dirty. Fact: engineers use their brains, not their hands, and the work they do is often innovative or creative.

The word ‘engineer’ is to do with ‘ingenuity’, not ‘engines’, as becomes clear when you look at the French word for engineer, ‘ingenieur’. It’s only in English that we confuse the ideas, so that a car mechanic is the public’s idea of an engineer!

Engineers, at the professional level, solve problems, figure out how and why things work, come up with ideas and designs for new products, equipment and structures, and work out how to make or build them safely, and to make a profit.

They also manage people and operations and run companies. Eileen Reed, for example, is now Director and General Manager of GEC Infra-Red and not long ago was nominated as ‘European Woman of Business’.

On the other hand, Prof. Julia Higgins works at the forefront of research and technical developments in the field of new plastic materials and how to make them with the properties you want.

Myth number two is that engineering is boring. Try telling that to Pip O’ Shea - she’ll soon change your views! Pip did a four-year degree in Mechanical Engineering, spending a year’s professional training in industry as part of her course.

During her time at Proctor and Gamble, she worked on solving the problem of why they were getting too many bubbles in their Fairy Liquid, casing spills and leakage during the bottle-filling process and costing money in waste and cleaning.

Her solution, devised after tests and experiments on flow rates, saved the company £62,000 a year. "It wasn’t only challenging, but fun", says Pip. She’s now working with Thames Water investigating why water pipes break, in an attempt to cut down on those widely reported leakage rates.

She’s just designed a test-rig to investigate the effect of ground freezing on pipes, and is itching to get it built and start the experiments.

The third and fourth myths concern the availability of jobs and the prospects for pay and career advancement. Traditional British heavy manufacturing industry has shrunk - there’s no denying that - but the job losses have been mostly in the low-skill occupations.

Graduate engineers with their problem-solving skills, knowledge of modern technology, business and management training and their flexibility are very much in demand. And not only in the growing high-tech industries!

Engineers are also snapped up for management positions, and financial and service industry companies, because of this all-round profile. One way to enhance your employability too is to do a course including a "sandwich" year, like Pip (above), especially if this is done under a recognised training scheme for Chartered Engineer status.

The statistics show that Universities with courses like these score very high on the graduate employment records.

As for pay, most new graduate in technical engineering jobs start on at least £14,500, which is above the average graduate starting salary. Some of my former students however are starting on £18,500.

After a couple of years, many earn over £20,000 and recent jobs ads were offering up to £30K for people with 5 years’ experience. (And a recent survey showed female graduates in Mechanical Engineering doing better than the men!).

In the long term too, engineers’ salaries stand up well against most occupations and in the manufacturing sector, over half the directors of companies are engineers! So you can get well paid to do interesting and challenging jobs.

The fact that engineers themselves are boring, or worse, weird, is myth number five. Just like any group engineers include a whole range of people, from the quiet and shy to the loud and confident.

And their interests range from rugby (Elisabeth, a student on exchange from a French engineering course, had a reputation for a mean tackle on the field!) to acting (like Petra, who works in Building Services Engineering), and from pot-holing to politics (both enjoyed by Lynette Willoughby, Past President of the Women’s Engineering Society and an Electronic Engineering graduate now lecturing in Computing), with all the usual pubbing and clubbing thrown in as well.

Whatever it is you like doing you’re likely to find other engineers who enjoy the same things, and they are friendly bunch on the whole. I should know… a lot of my friends are engineers….as well as many who aren’t!

Another myth is that engineers are the people who’ve messed up the planet and our quality of life. Sure, engineers designed the internal combustion engine, but would you want to be living in the age of the horse-drawn cart?

It’s not usually what the engineers come up with that’s the problem in itself, it’s what society does with it. And then, it’s the engineer who has to step in to clean up. Who designed the catalytic converter, or the sulphur scrubber systems for power stations, or the treatment plants for sewage?

Engineers of course! Just like they design and manufacture artificial hips and kidney dialysis machines, and also that CD player or computer you’ve just got. A world without engineers would be a poor place indeed!

The final fairy-story in all this is that engineering’s for the lads, not for girls. Well, above you’ve already seen a few examples of women engineers … and fairly normal people they are too! There’s no reason why women can’t do as well as men.

They can be just as good on the technical side, in fact a quick glance at the degree results in my own university suggests that women get proportionately more first or upper second class degrees and fewer thirds than would be expected.

And when it comes to employment, all the evidence suggests that women on the whole have in greater amounts the attributes and skills that make good engineers. They often have better communication skills, work well in teams, have more democratic management styles and think more about the global context of a problem rather than being narrowly focused.

Some big engineering companies like Esso find that they recruit women engineers out of all proportion to their numbers in the graduate cohort, simply because of these factors, which show up well in interviews.

And what about in ten to fifteen yeas time, if you decide you want to have children (a lifetime away, I know, but it might just happen)? Will that stop your career dead in its tracks, or shunt you into a siding? Well, not if Joanna Kennedy’s an example.

Joanna is now a Director of Ove Arup, one of the country’s leading companies in the civil engineering business, and is currently in charge of the project to refurbish the South Bank complex for the Millennium.

Back in the early eighties, Joanna - with her young family - starred in a video for employers about career breaks, Ove Arup were amongst the trend-setters in those days in working out packages of maternity leave, part-time working and updating to enable their highly-trained and valued engineers to stay with the company and continue to progress in their careers as well as taking time out for family commitments.

Now, career-breaks schemes are commonplace, and can cover men as well as women, and child-care provision by employers or others is widely available. There’s no need now to choose between career and family life.

So, girls, if you’re looking for something interesting, challenging and fun to do, with a good future and a good salary, you could do a lot worse than engineering! You can get information and support, and network with other women through the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), so you won’t be alone! Let’s show them what real girl power is about!

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