The interview is also available in an audio format below:
This week, we are celebrating women in engineering day with a special guest interview with our Operations Manager, Michelle Green. Michelle, thank you for joining me today.
Congratulations for your recent shortlisted nomination for the Engineer of the Year 2022 category at the Engineering Talent Awards, this is a massive achievement, well done!
Today, we will discuss Michelle's career path and the amazing initiatives she's been a part of, and how we can encourage more women to join our industry. So, Michelle, tell me a bit more about your background. How did you find your passion for engineering?
Michelle: Well, I remember being at school, and they were doing a careers fair. And I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I was looking forward to learning more. I remember discussing it with my dad, and without any hesitation he said, “But you're an engineer!” And to him, it was the most obvious thing. And yet to me, I didn't even know what an engineer was. I didn't know what they did. I didn't know anything about it. So, my dad clearly could see I had an engineering brain, I was particularly good at logic puzzles and figuring things out and seeing how things work. Once he said that, I was clearly an engineer!
So, I went back to school and started talking to teachers about it. And at the time, in the late nineties, engineering wasn't for girls, it was a boy’s game. And while my teachers were saying “No, you don't need that, it is just for the boys, you're a girl! You need to be a lawyer, a teacher or go work in a nursery. And I was just thinking that all seems so different than what I want. Despite being discouraged by my teachers, I decided I am going to do it anyway, and the more they told me that I couldn't do it, the more I wanted to do it.
I am from the Northeast originally, and there's a very big engineering home there, shipbuilders, bridge builders, we've got lots of engineering heritage up there. The next time a spot opened for an apprenticeship with a company called West’s Engineering Design (Darlington), I did an aptitude test and they said I'd be most suited to Civil and Structural Engineering. I managed to get an apprenticeship for four years and work through it and never looked back. Now I cannot imagine doing any other type of job!
What do you think are the key experiences or key events that kind of like shaped your career and in a positive way?
I, I really did not get on with school, the act of learning and being stuck in a classroom was different from what I envisioned I wanted to do. Therefore, the apprenticeship for me was incredible. From my first year I had the opportunity to do a lot of practical work, a bit of welding, sheet metal work, got to know more about electronics and bits of everything. This really opened my eyes that everyone can do everything.
In the next few years, I was spending one day at college, and then the rest of the time actually working with experts in the business. My apprenticeship involved learning a lot about heavy civils, Petrochemical Engineering and, and a lot of information in relation to the engineering within the Ministry of Defence. Suddenly, I was learning about all these interesting things that I would have never even dreamed of being able to work on. And yet I was thrown in at the deep end and working with professionals right from the start, which I believe set me up for the rest of my career.
Your story is just like a really notable example of being able to do well for yourself as a young person who is not compatible with the conventional education path, going to university straight from college, and then entering the job market.
Michelle: Yes, absolutely. I think once I found engineering, I thoroughly enjoyed my education journey, going to college, then university. I believe it is all about finding that niche that you're really good at and which interests you, and then education becomes a joy rather than an ordeal.
What do you wish you would have known in your early career as an engineer?
Michelle: I think one of the main things for me was that you're not set on a single path. Right at the beginning, I think a lot of pressure is put on you as a teenager to have a determined end goal. My career, for example, hasn't been a single path despite the fact that I stayed within the Engineering sector. I have worked on petrochemical and heavy civils projects, I've done house building, I've done wind turbines, I've done railway bridges. Along the way, I have decided to take on whatever opportunities I received if they presented an interest to me. This meant that I have been able to work on so many different things, rather than sticking to a single area of interest. You don't have to know where your entry point is, as long as you've got a general direction, you only need to accept the challenging opportunities that come up.
That was about to be my next question, you have read my mind! Often people assume that when you choose a career path, you're limited to a single role, which doesn’t have to happen this way unless that’s what you want.
Michelle proved that it is possible to seamlessly transition from a career as an Engineer to a more managerial role within the industry. How did you decide to make a change in the nature of your role?
Michelle: I don't think I actively decided to make a change, to be honest. After I got my Engineering Chartership at the beginning of 2020, I was looking into new professional development opportunities, and I stumbled upon a master's degree apprenticeship for senior leaders with the Chartered Management Institute. And when I read about it, I was really interested, but it was not what I was looking for at that stage. After that point, for some reason, I was constantly thinking about this course! After long considerations, I decided to enrol onto the course for my self-development. I didn’t really think about being a manager, or leading people, I just thought of it as another development stream for my own skills in those areas.
When the opportunity presented itself, I went with it. Around that time, we were going through a process change at FJD, and we needed someone to step up and take that operational role and have an overview of everything happening in the business. So, it just seems to have all worked out for the best.
That is amazing. What is your favourite thing about the new role?
Michelle: I think it is very much that I still have to use all of my engineering skills and knowledge. While I am not designing bridges anymore, having that Engineering background and skills means that all of the things I'm putting in place are coming from an engineer's point of view.
There are lots of little, like logic problems that need to be figured out, so I enjoy being able to use that Engineer’s brain, but just to help the whole business rather than just my little team.
That sounds really exciting, best of luck! I know you are a terribly busy lady who loves getting involved in so many different initiatives. I would like to start with the STEM Ambassador programme, I know you have been a really strong advocate for them. Tell us a bit more about it, how do you find the experience of being an ambassador?
Michelle: I find it really rewarding. When I was an apprentice, I was involved in a similar scheme up north that was about giving back to school children and teaching them what engineers do. The engineering profession is very good at just quietly fixing the world and making it a better place without shouting it from the rooftops. So, I think a lot of children, based on my experience when I have been into schools and colleges, don't even know what an engineer does. My first question is always “I'm an engineer, what do I do?”. And I get all sorts of responses from children, which made me realise that people in general are not aware of what we do as Engineers. I think, just being aware of what engineers do, as a whole society, is unbeatable. My feedback from the from the kids has always been along the lines of “Wait, so I could do that?” I think it is important to share what we do with the younger generation. And let them know that it's not just as much as building bridges. As an engineer, you could design a new house, you could design a power station, it is such a broad sector in which you can swap the direction of your career to work in a different sector at any time and still be able to use your Engineering knowledge.
How do you go about explaining to a young audience what you do?
Michelle: I think it’s key to take it right back to basics. As Engineers, I believe we can inherently get caught up in the very technical details of it all. Being surrounded by people within the industry every day in an office means that you can develop a very, a very technical geeky mindset that makes it more difficult to explain what you do.
You have to adjust your language to suit the audience. I believe when it comes to school presentations, from primary school right through up to colleges, taking it right back to the basics, helps me better understand my job and my role and what I do. But it also helps them grasp what the industry is all about. The language does not have to be exclusive; we can make the knowledge more accessible by not being hung up on the technicalities.
What impact do you think programmes as such have on the interest children gain for sectors like engineering?
Michelle: I think the impact is massive. I recently went to an all-girls school to give a presentation in their maths class. While I was talking them through my career history, one of the first questions from one of the girls was “Were you really good at maths?” They were all shocked to find out I was not particularly good at Maths and now I’m doing a technical engineering job.
I explained to them that it is important to develop strong problem-solving skills. Once they understood that they just must be able to follow the step-by-step process of maths to prove Engineering principles, they stopped writing themselves off because they were not excelling at Maths.
I think this goes to show how important it is to raise awareness about what Engineers do and to bridge the gap between schools and employers in order to provide children with more practical knowledge from professionals who work in the field. What is your advice for other fellow engineers who want to get involved? What sorts of activities can they expect?
Michelle: The amazing thing is that the STEM Ambassadors Programme offers professionals the training they need. For example, you can go on a one-day course or a couple of hours course in which they talk you through everything that you need to know. Then, they put you on their mailing list of different opportunities that can come up, and they can be 20 minutes presentations about your career to date, it could just be a very free flowing presentation, or it could be a practical session they want for the children to experience hands on. There are lots of resources out there available, the Institute of Civil Engineers offers kits, bridge building kits, earthquake elites, just to support professionals who want to get involved.
The last presentation I did was at a primary school, and I had 20 minutes slots throughout the day with the children. And all I all I needed was some pennies in a sheet of A4 paper. The activity entailed showing them how to fold the paper to make it strong enough as a bridge to hold pennies. And just adding one or two folds to the piece of paper meant that we could go from holding one penny to hold in sixty pennies. It is so impactful for them to kind of like realise “Oh, I’m pretty good at this, I could look into becoming an Engineer”.
One time a teacher was surprised to see a young girl so engaged in the activity because academically, she was not that strong. Once I started the session and explained the task to the class, she knew straight away what she had to do. She put her head down, got on with the task and quietly folded the paper. We were all amazed to see her final project, I ran out of pennies before the “bridge” would collapse and it was just a single sheet of A4 folded. It was amazing to see her do so well. Again, this proves the massive importance of exposing young students to such experiences.
In a way, we could say the young girl was like young Michelle who inherently had great Engineering problem solving skills, despite not being drawn to academical subjects. In line with that, it is not a secret that engineering is a male dominated industry with only an average of 12% of all engineers in the UK being women.
Some interesting stats commissioned by the Women’s Engineering Society revealed that:
· Only 46.4% of girls aged between 11-14 would consider a career in engineering, compared to 70.3% of boys
· Only 42.0% of girls aged between 14-16 would consider a career in engineering compared to 66.0% of boys
· Only 25.4% of girls aged 16-18 would consider a career in engineering compared to 51.9% of boys
This data points to an increased need to promote and mentor young girls to join the industry, and the Women’s Engineering Society have made it their mission to achieve gender equality.
What I would be curious to know is how did you get involved with the organisation?
So, I think a lot of work has been done to engage young children into engineering, with the help of STEM Ambassadors and by improving the school curriculum. The difference the Women’s Engineering Society are making is trying to look at the older workforce, and what issues related to gender imbalance exist.
There is another stat that stood out to me, it's something along the lines of 37% of women who are Engineers don't come back after having a baby. They just leave the industry. Why are they not coming back to this industry, when they have gone through university, they've got the qualifications, they've had a job and got the experience, why are they not being welcomed back after having a baby?
This information hit home for me, as I experienced a challenging time, when I went on maternity leave after having my second child. I had lost all my confidence, I had been out of the industry for a prolonged period of time, and when I came back everything changed at work, I was put into a new team. I really struggled with my mental health when I came back, and I wasn't fully supported by my employer at the time.
Therefore, I believe the work the Women's Engineering Society are doing is very important. They've got a returners programme to get people back on track after maternity, they've got a mentoring programme with older professionals in the industry who help the younger ones, and they host regular events for networking.
For me, although I do a lot of work with the STEM ambassadors to get the younger children acquainted with the industry, I think I am at a point now in my career where I can also help people who've decided that they want to be engineers, I can help them stay in this industry through mentoring. I believe it’s a great industry to be in, and the impact you can have on the world around you as a whole is unmatched, really. I saw the Women's Engineering Society and what they were doing for our current engineers and for bringing that pipeline of engineers through and I thought, I could really get involved with that and make a positive change.
And you did get involved, I know you are a mentor for several young engineers at FJD, and are particularly good at that, I might add. In addition to that, you have also taken all the knowledge received from the Women's Engineering Society and have created an internal engineering society for FJD Consulting. What was the motive behind that?
Michelle: I think when we went into lockdown, the entire world changed overnight, everyone was kind of forced into this new way of working. I knew how I struggled when my kids were young, my husband was working away, so I felt very isolated, and alone. I did not want others to feel that, to feel like they had no support, and they couldn't go to anyone. So, I just set up this group, and we had catch up calls, to chat about anything that we wanted.
One of the one of the ladies on there had a young child at home and it was just her and her daughter and she was struggling mentally. And we had catch up calls and at one point I remember being on a video call with her and I set up my daughter to have a video call with her daughter. It was great to see what a positive impact such a small gesture could have for someone, just giving her 20 minutes breathing space and some headspace.
Nowadays, it is not only used for that, it is a space to celebrate everyone who's marginalised within Engineering, whether that's LGBTQ+, trans or non-binary communities, or it's for anybody who is not within that main demographic that we see within the engineering industry. We share all sorts of things in there, it is a really supportive group.
That's amazing, it's really important to raise awareness about the importance of creating small support systems within companies, I think it makes a huge difference in making everyone feel seen and heard. Congratulations for your great initiative and continuous involvement!
This year’s theme for Women in Engineering Day is ‘Imagine the Future.’ What is your vision for the future of Engineering from a gender perspective, and how do you think we can achieve that vision?
Michelle: In my opinion, gender should be irrelevant. I think as an engineer, you either have an engineering brain or you don't, and gender is totally irrelevant to that equation.
I think my hope for the future would be not needing these distinctions anymore and that could be attained by cultivating a truly diverse and inclusive engineering workforce. Because I think, in Engineering, especially when we look at an engineering problem, we come at it from our own life perspective of how we were brought up and from all our experience to the date, which determines how we will solve that problem. So having a more diverse group of engineers looking at a problem means that we are going to come at it from so many different perspectives and we are going to achieve a better solution out of it.
The ideal future would be a very inclusive, diverse engineering workforce where you wouldn’t have to mention the number of female engineers existing in a company because it just would not be relevant!
Thank you so much for joining me and for all the great insights that you've offered us. If you want to keep up to date with Michelle’s career journey, make sure you follow her on LinkedIn @Michelle Green.
We hope you enjoyed learning more about Michelle’s career path and got some useful insights about the future of the Engineering and the initiatives available to support the industry’s growth. We would love to hear your feedback, so leave us a comment below or on our LinkedIn page.