Head Of Training, The Healthy Work Company

December 16, 2016

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Education to inspire the next generation: Philippa Oldham



Philippa Oldham is the Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).  At a recent Women in Construction and Engineering (WICE) awards judging day, Philippa took time out to talk to SHP’s Lauren Applebey about how the engineering profession is changing for women and how they are using education to inspire the next generation.

This article was originally published in May 2016.

Tell us about your role

I act as an external voice for our 114,000 international members on all things related to transport and manufacturing, aiming to raise the profiles of what they are doing whether it be innovation, design or even trying to influence government policy before it is set. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is an accreditation body for all mechanical engineers around the world who aim to achieve professional registration, and we feel it is our responsibility to ensure that engineers’ voices are heard in Government, media and the public as a whole.

What do you have to do to become a member of the IMechE?

To become a chartered engineer or an incorporated engineer you have to fulfil various levels of competencies to ensure that you are designing safe products, and making sure you are using the right principles and manufacturing techniques to make sure that whatever you are designing is safe, non-harmful to the environment or the people using it such as consumers. As well as this you have to work as a team and make products that are sustainable. It is also possible to join as a student or apprentice member, if you are studying or training to become a mechanical engineer.

What attracted you to getting involved with WICE?

I’m always delighted to be involved in these sorts of events and to have the opportunity to debate with different people around the topic of encouraging women into the profession. It’s great to see how views have changed, having been in the profession for over 15 years now. Has the perception of women in construction and engineering changed, or are they static? One of the things I am very aware of is that we still remain at a stable 6%; with less than one in ten professional engineers being female. The numbers are still very small, but a positive that we can see today is that women have very good experiences in the profession, even though it’s often portrayed by the media as a very negative profession for a woman.

We have to remember that in the grand scheme of things women haven’t been in professional roles for that long. We talk about a lack of women on boards and in FTSE 100 companies, but it takes time to get a pool of women who may be capable and have the experience to fulfil those positions, as typically in the past we did stay at home and look after the family. It has been more recently that we have started to have these opportunities and been able to make these career changes as we are now able to leave children in childcare.

What are the challenges in construction and engineering for woman, or do they face the same challenges as men?

I think the challenges are similar. The main challenge is that we don’t have enough people doing construction and engineering and if we are going to deliver large infrastructure projects and we are going to grow the manufacturing base within the country we are going to need to have more people with the skills to support that – whether it be male or female. I think a lot of that is about getting into schools and educating parents and teachers about why engineering is important.

You spoke about the Teachers Industrial Placement Scheme, can you tell us more?

The scheme is the Insights into Industry Scheme run by the STEM learning network and encourages teachers to come and work within construction and engineering firms to expose them to what those industries offer. The interesting thing about the scheme is that they don’t just sit with the engineers they go into the finance and marketing offices, they work with the health and safety teams – so they move around the whole firm and project. So no matter which subject they are teaching they can bring real life engineering examples into the classroom.

How can we get young people excited about working in construction and engineering?

We need to approach people at the right level. I love motorsport and that’s why I got into engineering but often when a Formula1 engineer is interviewed for TV it’s all a bit too technical. It needs to be adapted to the right level of audience, which can be a difficult thing. Companies like Dyson and Apple know what individuals want and make it about the user experience of the end product, actually behind all of that is a great engineering company. People want to work for Apple and Dyson as they have changed the way they market themselves and essentially they have made people want to make vacuum cleaners and hand dryers!

We have talked about the changing times in construction and engineering. How do you think health and safety is changing?

I think a huge part of health and safety is about health and a healthy work life balance – and flexible hours. Flexible hours doesn’t have to be part time. I work five days in four. We have an aging population and this means that there may be times when workers have to take time off to look after a relative and businesses need to understand this. As technology is changing, people are working longer hours and are more contactable all the time, always looking at emails. Studies look at the stress levels involved in that, and I think the key thing is getting employees to understand how to manage that. Another key thing is making sure that business leaders are approachable, with managers having open doors and regular 1-2-1s. Workers need to happy and engaged in the job they do.

Philippa’s article on reverse mentoring – What the board can learn from the factory floor – will be published soon.

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