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Thrills, spills and drilling plates

Prof Naomi Brookes
Engineering is a thrilling career so why aren’t there more young people – especially women – signing up? Naomi Brookes, professor of complex programme management at WMG, University of Warwick, wonders what it will take to get more women into a profession which makes such a huge difference to people’s lives.

“The wonderful thing about my job is there is no ‘typical’ day”, enthuses Professor Brookes who perhaps might not be seen as a ‘typical’ engineer. Working as a researcher in complex project management, she spends her days unravelling mysteries, including perhaps the most pressing of the modern age: Why don’t most massive infrastructure projects ever run on time or to budget?

Recently she headed up a project of more than 90 people from 25 countries across the Europe, trying to make sense of the complexity of large infrastructure projects. She explains: “On the MEGAPROJECT team we were an eclectic group of practitioners, academics and professional organisations who brought together 40 cases of large projects from across Europe – some complete, some still ongoing because they are so big. Projects like Flamanville, the French nuclear power plant, which has taken many years to get this far and it will still take many more to complete. Some projects go on for decades.

“Our aim was to look at these as a group and identify key factors common to them so we could make a blueprint of what to do and how to tackle this kind of megaproject. There are definite commonalities in terms of process, how you run the projects and frameworks for delivery. There is a standard product lifecycle that you get, even in these massive and very diverse projects.

“We produced some best practice advice documents which were disseminated across many policy making organisations which we hope will trickle down to the commissioning side – eventually. But I am realistic that you can’t make radical change quickly. We can’t even liken this to steering a supertanker – we are blowing on a supertanker with a straw in the hope that if enough people join in you have an effect on its direction.”

But Professor Brookes is determined that improvements should be made when it comes to commissioning and running large scale complex developments. She explains: “There must be more than hope that things will change – there must be intent to make these things much more streamlined, efficient and effective. These infrastructure projects are so entwined with the sustainability and future of the human race, not only because they consume a large amount of resource in their delivery but also because they deliver energy and transport to people. As such, they dictate the pattern of energy usage in the future and they are crucially important in providing a sustainable future for all of us. It is absolutely imperative that we think about this when we are designing and delivering these kind of projects.”

Delivering a product

Professor Brookes’ focus has always been on produce delivery. She has a background in production engineering. Her love of engineering started during work experience when she was 16. She explains:

“Way back when computer controlled machines had just arrived on the scene, I went to spend a week at a manufacturing company in Worcester where I grew up. I programmed this huge drilling machine to drill a series of different diameter holes in a component. But I was in charge of the whole process. I wrote the programme and I went out on the shop floor and I saw the machine do what I wanted it to do. I thought that was absolutely fascinating and it was that experience that really switched on my passion for making things.”

It wasn’t just the hands on experience that inspired her. She continues: “It was the creation of something – the creation of an artefact that was really exciting, but not only the creation, the vast amount of supporting processes to achieve that.

“When I went to the shop floor – the foreman asked me in very abrupt terms if I had got permission to be there and went on to proclaim that the worlds of the office and the factory floor were entirely different. So even in that one small experience I got the whole idea of the management of production. It was a microcosm of everything that was exciting and challenging about manufacturing engineering.”

Professor Brookes went on to study production engineering and management and was a Rolls Royce sponsored student and later manufacturing engineer working on process automation. She later moved into operations management and still experienced the thrill of producing something.

She explains: “On a Friday evening I used to go to the factory stores and count how many discs I had produced that week. It was thrilling and satisfying. At 24 I was only the third ever female operations manager at Rolls Royce. I was in charge of a workforce of about 50 per shift, mostly male and who had never had a female manager before.”

The chance to change lives

But have things changed? In 2020 Professor Brookes doesn’t think the picture has changed that much.

She says: “Depressingly, not enough has changed. We still run up against the problem that engineering hasn’t portrayed itself as the exciting career it is. We have swathes of capable students who are attracted to other scientific careers mainly because they have no understanding of what an engineer does. This is the crux of the problem. Other careers are known quantities – we know what a doctor does, we know what an accountant does, we think we know what a criminologist does because we see it on the TV. Kids really don’t know what an engineer does.

“I have had the most incredible career. In engineering more than in any other profession you have the chance to change the lives of people and this should be an immense motivation for young people to take it up.”

 

Published:

11 February 2020

About:

Professor Naomi Brookes is Professor of Complex Programme Management at WMG, University of Warwick.

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