How did a stockbroker become one of the relatively few women to forge a career in engineering?
This is the story of Develop Training’s Nicola Smith, who hopes her experience will encourage more women to seek careers in engineering.
According to the Women’s Engineering Society, only 9% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female. In fact, we have the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe and with the proportion of young women studying engineering and physics remaining virtually static since 2012, it is not a trend that looks set to change dramatically any time soon.
Nicola is one woman who has bucked the trend and is now encouraging others to do the same.
Nicola has been a Lecturer in Smart Meter installation with Develop Training Ltd (DTL) since February 2017, passing on the skills and knowledge she developed during her time as a hands on installer to others…and she’s loving every minute of it.
So how does an ex-stockbroker end up in engineering?
Like many of us, Nicola left school not really knowing what she wanted to do.
“I was looking for work and fell into a job as a cashier with West Bromwich Building Society,” she said.
“Even then, I knew that it wasn’t really for me, but once you start moving along a particular career path, it’s difficult to get off it.”
Nicola’s ability and desire to learn meant that she quickly progressed into financial and mortgage advice, and eventually she became a stock broker based in Canary Wharf.
“Even though I was successful, I had this nagging feeling that I needed to do something else. I moved back into retail banking and then started to plan a complete career change. I knew it would mean a pay drop so it was a huge risk, but I just felt like it was something I had to do.
“I’d always been a bit of a tinkerer,” she said. “I enjoy finding out how things work and have always liked hands-on, practical activities. In fact, at 19, I applied for a mechanics course, but the man I spoke to about it at the time put me off and it really dampened my enthusiasm. So when an apprenticeship at British Gas came up, although it was a million miles away from banking, it felt right.
“I also felt really lucky; at that time British Gas were one of the few companies offering to pay people while they learned. Fortunately, many more companies offer apprenticeships today.”
While Nicola was the only female Engineer working in her area, she says her experience was positive.
“I knew I’d definitely made the right change,” she said. “Admittedly, there were some days when I’d be working outdoors, wet through and I’d miss sitting behind my desk! But overall, it was the right move for me.
“It isn’t the kind of job that suits everyone.”
“You can be called out to an emergency any time of the day or night. You find yourself working alone in people’s houses. But I don’t think that has anything to do with gender: it’s the same for both men and women.”
Nicola said she was completely accepted by her team mates, but that the prevailing presumption is still that engineers are men.
“Right up until the day I left, customers would say ‘but when will the engineer be here?’ and I’d have to explain that I was the engineer. Another said to me: ‘Am I allowed to say I wasn’t expecting a woman?’ Hopefully, attitudes are changing, but with so few women in the industry, it will take some time before it’s seen as the norm.”
Nicola hopes that her most recent career move will give her a role in encouraging more women into Engineering. With 64% of engineering employers saying a shortage of engineers in the UK is a threat to their business, getting more women into engineering is a challenge we can’t afford to ignore.
“I love learning myself and find it incredibly rewarding to see others learn and develop,” she said “So when DTL asked me to join them as a Lecturer, I jumped at the chance.
“We have a massive skills shortage in Engineering. With an ageing workforce, skill sets are literally dying out. We can’t miss the opportunity to address that now and apprenticeships are an important part of the solution.
“Of course, I’m a massive advocate of encouraging more women into the industry. Since I started training for DTL, I haven’t had a single woman on my course! I really want to encourage women to see it as a career choice. There’s genuinely nothing a man can do that we can’t. Even things that require physical strength – something I worried about when I first started my own training. With practice, you become just as capable as your male colleagues. I really can’t shout loudly enough about it!”