The life & times of an HVAC Engineer











{December 5, 2011}   A little of (y)our time

It's not for girls!


I’ve seen a lot of schemes & read a lot of articles about women in science, engineering & technology of late. The articles are all about how only 7% of engineers in the UK are female, why this might be and what could or should we be doing about it.

In my humble opinion, much of it is about perception. Teachers, pupils and parents perceive our industry to be dirty, dangerous, boring, unethical or just plain Not For Girls.

But this perception doesn’t just put off young women from entering the profession, but also many of the best young male minds as well. Whether or not you agree with the positive discrimination taking place to entice girls into STEM careers, the danger is that if we don’t do something to address the image of engineering then very few youngsters will have any interest in joining it; whatever their gender, race, religion or socio-economic background.

Thankfully perception is relatively inexpensive, albeit time consuming, to change. But in order to do so we need engineers to talk to the public about what they do, why it’s important and what makes it exciting.

As Sir John Parker , President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says of engineers: We are not automatic seekers of publicity, maybe we should take responsibility […] to explain our profession

There are loads of engineers and scientists who are willing to do just that, there are over 29,000 STEM Ambassadors for starters! As individuals many engineers can see the need for, and the fulfillment to be had from, school & public engagement. The problem that they, and other willing volunteers, face though, is that they can’t find the time to interact with schools.

Wherever I can I make time, I’ll do evening, weekend or online events, or I do short events during the school day & then make up the hours at another time. When I can’t make up the time my company is generally very supportive and allows me a certain amount of leeway. This is hard won and wearing though, and isn’t plausible for everyone currently. Companies need to recognise the need for the profile of engineering and engineers to be raised. The need for a career in engineering to be seen as respectable, desirable and most of all: exciting!

So I throw down the gauntlet. If companies genuinely are interested in having a diverse workforce. If they want to ensure that there will be enough young engineers to fill the places of those who will be retiring over the next 5-15 years. If they want to be able to grow their businesses with new ideas and new people…they will have to commit to not just allowing but encouraging their employees to spend company time on engaging with the public, especially with schools.

So what will you, and your company, commit to?



{September 5, 2011}   Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

I spent most of the bank holiday weekend dressed up as a wolf. And I was working. For WSP CEL. This, I assure you, is not my usual work wear. However, I was still engineering. No really, I was!

You see over the bank holiday weekend Coventry Airbase hosted the 2011 Imagineering Fair. I love the Imagineering Fair, it’s all about getting kids excited about engineering. All sorts of different companies turn up, so as a professional engineer you get to meet a whole load of engineers that you would otherwise never see. The companies then put on activities for the kids to get hands on with engineering problems. I love that part for two different reasons

– one, because seeing the kids’ faces when they build something successful is massively rewarding and is definitely worth working through the weekend for
– and two, because kids are so much more imaginative than we adults are. All our training, all that education we have – it’s brilliant because it teaches you efficient solutions to standard problems and it teaches you the maths & theory & material properties you need to know to be able to calculate whether your answer will work. But, the other thing it does is make you forget to imagine, forget that trial & error is ok, forget that weird & wonderful untried solutions can sometimes be even better than answers that have been developed & refined over decades. I think that’s very worth being reminded of on a regular basis. Perhaps we should get kids into the office sometimes.

But that’s an aside. Why was I dressed as a wolf? I was in fact the big bad wolf. The WSP activity was constructing paper towers to keep the 3 little pigs out of the wolf’s reach. Of course the paper towers then also had to resist the wolf’s huff & puff…otherwise known as a desk fan.

The pigs had lots of adventures, and a fair few tumbles, but on the whole there were a lot of amazing solutions to the task. Over the weekend a large pig city rapidly built up around our stand. It really was something to behold – the sheer variety of different approaches. I certainly found it very inspiring, seeing all that imagination. One thing it’s reminded me of, and a learning I will take back to the office, is that there is never just one right answer.



As you may have read in my previous post about getting chartered, my goal for a very long time was to be a chartered engineer. The problem, however, with achieving goals is that you either need to have another goal lined up before you manage it, or you end up feeling a bit lost after the initial elation. It didn’t even occur to me to think about ‘what next’ before I got chartered…so I fell off a bit of a cliff in terms of knowing what I want from life. So since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want out of my career.

I had been working in building services, but due to the type of work we currently have in the business there was no immediate opportunity to move into a lead/senior role, and no new challenges on the horizon. Thankfully I’m a part of a company who recognizes my need for challenge, development and change and now I’m on secondment in project engineering in the chemical side of the business.

But, like some of the students who have just received their A-Level results, or many of the 2011 graduates, I now have the combined puzzles of ‘what do I want to do next?’ and ‘how am I supposed to figure that out?’. It’s an age old question that people ponder over time and time again through out their lives, and it’s one that certainly doesn’t have a correct answer!

For me, unlike the students picking degree courses & so on, the question is not much about what the content of my work is, or the technical subject, but what do I find rewarding about it? I know I enjoy engineering, particularly building services and particularly the process industry. I’m also enjoying a lot of what I’m doing as a project engineer, which is what makes it so hard to pick between them and to come up with some long term career goals. For me the rewards are overcoming a challenge (I love problem solving), making the world a better place (which is why I like pharmaceuticals & talking in schools) and being recognised for what I’m doing (who doesn’t appreciate a pat on the back after all).

The former two can find satisfaction in many different roles and at my level & age recognition is relatively simple. There are lots of managers I report to, or folk who are keeping an eye on what I’m doing & they can give me a pat on the back, or a thank-you/well done & that means something to me. There are also still visible promotions in reach. There are also lots of award schemes out there for people at my level. But an interesting dilemma is how do you balance out the desire to progress upwards within the company/industry with the need for recognition? The higher up you are, the less managers you have, and then the less people there are to tell you that you’ve done a good job. Again, there is no simple answer, other than that as you go up the ladder, you increasingly need to recognise your own achievements and set your own standards & goals…and there were we are back at goals again.

So when considering your future career, what will you want from it? To be a technical expert? A senior manager? To earn lots of money? To have freedom over your time & how you do your work? To have lots of interesting challenges? Do you want recognition? Will you become an entrepreneur? Is family your highest priority? Or do you really want to make the world a better place & serve society? It’s certainly worth considering as whatever it is that makes you tick, satisfying that will make you a lot happier than having picked the right academic topic to focus your career on. Perhaps that’s what school career advisors ought to be focusing on rather than which subjects to pick.

I’m happy with the subjects I picked, and I’m happy with the career I have right now, but I do need to get myself some new goals. Fortunately all the thinking I’ve been doing lately has at least allowed me to pin down what it is that I really love, and that is engagement. I really enjoy getting people excited about engineering, getting clients on board with the idea of using sustainable solutions, getting team members interested in the project work and their own career development, getting teams to be part of a positive health & safety culture and getting the company to buy into people development. All of which are about getting people & teams engaged in something, and it makes me smile. I guess many of those things can be done no matter what role I end up in, lead building services engineer, project manager or whatever else. But it would be interesting to know what roles people think would be ideal for me & my love of getting people ‘engaged’ – although if anyone says matchmaker I will not be impressed!



For the last 10 weeks, every Tuesday we’ve had a sixth form student visiting the office for work experience. I’ve very much taken her under my wing, and have found her things to do, arranged meetings & work shadowing with various different departments, helped her improve her CV, and talked to her about what she wants to do after her A-levels.
Initially she came to us through the IChemE as she wanted to do a degree and either be a Chemical Engineer or a Teacher.

10 weeks on and she’s now far more aware of the massive amount of different options that are available within engineering. That means that in many ways we’ve actually made her decision more difficult, but at least she’s more likely to make a decision that is right for her.

As a learner who enjoys real life context & getting stuck into the world of work, as one of several siblings, and as one of the first cohort to be subject to the £9000 university fees, one of the decisions she’s now looking at is whether going straight into uni after her A-levels is actually the best option. With such large costs for university, and with enjoying work based learning it may not be, so we’ve spent alot of time discussing the pros and cons of apprenticeships vs degrees. It has been a learning curve for me too, since I did a degree and never even considered qualifying in any other way. With that in mind, before I get into the pros & cons that we ending up discussing, here are a few disclaimers:

1) There is no wrong choice. Both apprenticeships amnd degrees are superb qualifications but as with many things in life you will only get as much out of them as you are willing to put in.

2) I am by no means the fount of all knowledge when it comes to qualifications and career paths, there are some brilliant resources on the internet though and these are a few I would recommend:
The UK government’s apprenticeship website
Cogent’s careers website
The ECITB’s careers website
Magasine & report articles such as page 10 in here

3) Apprenticeships and full time degrees straight out of school are not the only options. You might also want to consider a Year in Industry, or an Engineering Training Programme; National Grid offer a particularly good one. Some other large engineering companies offer similar things.

So, those resources & disclaimers aside, what conclusions did we come to? What are the advantages of each? Well in my opinion:

Degrees (done full time straight from A-levels): Generally a faster means of getting into engineering management, with a higher starting salary, pretty much the only way to get into engineering academia & research, particularly good if you like academic classroom learning, reading & reseach. Some companies hold degree qualified engineers in much higher regard than those with apprenticeships. It’s also much easier/quicker to become a chartered engineer, especially if you do a Masters degree.
But it’s expensive, you start learning later, your knowledge is less directly related to what you will be doing in your career and you will have to prove your practical knowledge to colleagues who have a greater respect for apprenticeships

Apprenticeships:You start younger, and you earn while you learn (albeit not very much initially), after doing an apprenticeship with a company many of them will sponsor you through a degree part time so you can get into most of the same job roles as any other graduate (though generally a few years later) , many companies have more respect for engineers with the practical background that an apprenticeship gives and you wont have student debt. Particularly good if you prefer contextual/hands on learning. However, you may have to prove your more academic skills to degree qualified colleagues, and some companies hold degrees in higher regard.

I think if I had my time again I’d still want to end up degree qualified, but I think I’d also like to have gained a bit more practical knowledge…so perhaps I would have done a year in industry or one of the engineering training programmes. Equally though, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve achieved & how I’ve gotten to where I am, so perhaps doing a degree straight out of uni was the best option for me after all.



Over the last six months I’ve been part of the UKRC & RAEng‘s ‘Ingenious Women’ project, all about developing and publicising the career’s of young female engineers in order to encourage more women to follow our career paths.

So, as part of the project I’ve been unashamedly having my face and my story splattered all over every website that would have me. For your delectation, and in celebration of 2500 visits to my blog, here they all are:

My first foray onto the internet, the website of the Ingenious Women project.

After that I volunteered to be a case study on the careers website of the ECITB (Engineering Construction Industry Training Board). Be warned, it takes a bit of searching for me on this one, as there is no direct link.

Then I was contacted by STEMNET to be a case study for some of their STEM Club resources.

I was also lucky enough to receive a training grant from Cogent. Since this was a huge help to me I couldn’t say no when they asked if I would feature in one of their articles.

Last, but by no means least I’m taking part in the ‘hidden science app’ where you can get science questions answered. This has led to be being featured on the Science Council’s ‘Future Morph’ careers website, a brilliant resource for any students considering science/engineering careers…or for parents & teachers trying to persuade them to!

I hope you enjoyed them. There are a few more that are still in the making, I’ll post the links to them when I have them.



Since getting chartered I’ve decided to play a more active role in my professional institute, CIBSE. After e-mailing the chairman of the local committee, and attending my first meeting, I’ve now been appointed the role of ‘Education Liaison Officer’ (or ELO) for CIBSE in the West Midlands. I’ve also got a seat on the committee itself.

I was only elected to the role a week ago, but since then I’ve endeavoured to get in touch with as many of the other engineering institute’s local committees as possible. Where they have one I’ve been getting in touch with other Education/School Liaison Officers, and where they don’t I’m getting in touch with the chairmen or secretaries. In less than a week I’ve already received an overwhelmingly positive response.

Every person I’ve spoken to is really enthusiastic either about sharing the knowledge and experience they already have regarding school events & engagement, or about getting involved with joint events with CIBSE. It’s so inspiring to be speaking to such passionate, interested and motivated individuals. It really makes me excited about what it may be possible to achieve together.

In my experience school pupils don’t have enough opportunities to see and hear about what engineering is, and what exciting engineering is taking place around them. Then we (that’s both ‘we’ the engineering industry, and ‘we’ British society) are surprised when not enough young people choose to pursue careers in engineering. The engineering population is aging, and unless more graduates and apprentices enter the industry we will be left with a serious lack of staff and knowledge in 10-15 years time. That’s not just my opinion, but something that companies such as Centrica are sufficiently concerned about to have commissioned surveys around the topic.

One of the ways to change things for the better is simply for engineers and engineering companies to go into schools and explain what they do, why it’s important and what is exciting about it. Hopefully in my new voluntary role as ELO (Education Liaison Officer, not Electric Light Orchestra) I’ll be able to take part in, and facilitate, lots of opportunities for students to meet engineers. Who knows, perhaps this is the start of a West Midlands movement to re-engage with schools and students and inspire a new generation of engineers…



I was asked recently, as part of the Ingenious Women project & being a STEM Ambassador, to give a talk to FE lecturers so that they can engage & motivate their own students studying STEM subjects and encourage them to consider STEM careers.

My briefing was: “You will have 15-20 minutes to talk about your own career and the barriers you had to overcome. What were/are the good things you have experienced and what inspired you to become a scientist/engineer?

I really want to do a good job with this seminar as it will enable others to inspire far more pupils than I can reach alone, so I’ve been putting a lot of thought into it. I’m sharing my answers here as they might be of interest to more folk than just the Birmingham FE lecturers. Though if if you’re from Matthew Boulton College you might want to stop here or you’ll be reading spoilers!

So what barriers have I had to overcome?
– Technical understanding: I found Further Maths very challenging at A-Level, but I’m so glad I took it because when I got to university and found I was studying the same things in the ‘Advanced Engineering Mathematics’ module it all just clicked into place in my head & suddenly it was (comparatively) easy…everyone else around me was really struggling though, so I was glad to be able to help! Engineering isn’t easy, but once the difficult bits start clicking into place it’s very interesting and personally I found the technical challenges very enjoyable.

– Sexism: Even in this day and age there is still something of an obstacle to women progressing in engineering, and as such we’re few & far between. On the whole I find it doesn’t matter to most people what my gender is, but occasionally I come across real corkers. I think my most painful memory along those lines occurred at my Grandfather’s funeral. I was in my early twenties, studying engineering at university. I was stood next to my Mother when one of my Grandfather’s old gentleman acquaintances said to her “I don’t know why you’re letting her study engineering, she’ll never get anywhere with it, she’s a girl”. To be honest though, comments like that tend to spur me on to prove them wrong rather than being a true barrier…though pay disparity can still be an issue.
– Work load: Engineering degrees, and engineering jobs, are not an easy ride, there’s a lot of work to be done. Sometimes that can be very tough, for example; when all of your friends at Uni are going out & having fun or spending time relaxing whilst you’re working away in the labs or in lectures. Even sometimes just getting up in the morning for lectures while everyone else is having a lie-in seems very unfair, but I do love the level of knowledge and respect that the hard graft has bestowed upon me.

image credit: LorenGul on IgoUgo

What are the good things I’ve experienced?
– Having a positive impact: I love opening the bathroom cabinet to get out a medicine & being able to say “I made the factory that made this” – it’s very rewarding
– Problem solving: There’s something deeply satisfying about coming up against a technical challenge & finding a good solution that everyone (from clients to construction workers) is happy with. Or spending weeks tweaking a building & all its services so it passes validation just in time for an audit! Phew – what a relief!
– Seeing interesting places & finding out how things are made: For example I really enjoyed spending time in Cadbury’s research & development labs/kitchens in Bourneville – mmm chocolatey! I’ve also had the pleasure of travelling to Paris for meetings, and heading back to the airport from a Swiss meeting via a boat trip on Lake Geneva – I do love a bit of travel, I love coming home again too, but you can’t beat an all expenses paid trip to Paris!

image credit: racecar engineering

And what on earth inspired me to become an engineer in the first place?
– My Grandfather (he wanted to be an engineer, and had a fantastic workshop in his back garden where he made the most incredible working scale models of trains, boats and traction engines, he also volunteered on the Welshpool & Llanfair light railway)
– Exciting engineering projects like Formula One, I used to watch races with my parents as a kid & I so wanted to know how it all worked
– I’ve always loved solving problems and getting my head round how things work…if I get to be creative & use some maths & physics on route then so much the better!

A few more things also confirmed to me that engineering was what I wanted to do:
– Going on a Headstart course (a week in a university engineering department)
– Older friends who were studying engineering or working as engineers (you may not like to admit it Mr. Farmer & Mr. Prestwich, for reasons of age or ego, but it’s true)
– A couple of my teachers who spoke to me about my aptitude in their subjects (maths and design technology) and encouraged me down the engineering path (thank-you Ms. Maginnis & Mr. Harrison)
– The respect that people I knew had for engineers

So that’s why I’m an engineer…what influenced your career choice(s)?



et cetera
%d bloggers like this: