Kathleen Villaluz – My Journey into Civil Engineering

Kathleen Villaluz – My Journey into Civil Engineering

In the second of our blogs to mark International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June, Kathleen Villaluz, who earlier this year was the joint winner of our Most Promising Trainee Civil Engineer award, writes about her journey into civil engineering.  A truly inspiring story!

Kathleen Villaluz, Site Engineer, BAM Nuttall.

My journey into engineering and construction started at a very early age. As a young girl, I’ve always been exposed to the construction world; most of the male figures in my life (dad, uncles and grandad) works in construction and I have always taken interest in it.

I’m fascinated with how things are built and how they work and this interest was the basis on why I chose civil engineering as a career. I initially wanted to pursue music when I was in high school as I enjoyed playing musical instruments and was interested in the technicality of it. However, when it was time to decide on what I really wanted to do in university, I chose to do civil engineering because I thought it would give me broader employment opportunities.

I did my BEng degree in the University of the West of Scotland in 2008 and graduated in 2012. It was difficult finding a job after graduation as that was the height of the recession, there weren’t a lot of graduate engineering jobs and the competition was steep. Because of the industrial climate at the time, so I decided to pack my bags and go travelling around Asia for half a year.

When I got back to Scotland, I managed to get a job with Foster Wheeler in the oil and gas industry as a technical assistant. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Foster Wheeler as I was involved in large projects both nationally and internationally and it was overwhelming for me to be a part of it.

I worked with a number of women doing engineering roles and there was a good balance of male and female energy around me which was contrary to common perception that the oil and gas industry was male-dominated. Even working with big clients like Statoil (now Equinor), I was also dealing with women with significant roles in the industry.

Seeing how women, who are ahead of me in years, are in the same professional par as men gave me that extra courage to do much better and take on bigger challenges. But because the oil and gas world is a bespoke industry, the technical challenges that came with it also doesn’t call for off-the-shelf engineering solutions. I felt that there was a big gap of technical knowledge I was lacking and that I needed to do something about it.

One of my mentors at the time told me that if I wanted to be a well-rounded engineer, I should consider working on site. This became one of the driving forces on why I sought for a job in contracting later on in my career. I was in two minds about quitting my job at the time to pursue my masters as I didn’t know how easy it would be to get a job after it but I finally decided to take the leap in 2015 and did it.

In December 2016 I graduated from the University of Glasgow with an MSc in Structural Engineering and Mechanics. At this point, I felt that I needed to step outside of my comfort zone so I made the decision to find work within the contracting sector and I eventually landed an assistant engineer role with BAM Nuttall. I knew that site work would be difficult but it’s not really until you enter that world would you realise the amount of effort that’s involved in to shaping and improving the world.

One of the most important aspect of working on site is communication and as someone whose first language isn’t English, this could sometimes be a big challenge. Understanding and explaining high level information to people is not an easy task. In the construction world, misunderstanding even a simple detail could be detrimental to the progress of the job. And although I’m fluent in speaking the English language, I sometimes still take a moment to myself to process information and make sure that I understood it.

I’m lucky enough to be working with people who are collaborative and takes the time to listen to what I have to say which certainly makes my job easier. This made me realise that the industry has definitely moved on from being a male-dominated world to a place where women also have their voices heard.

The construction industry could either make you or break you but it will only break you if you allow it to. And one of the beauties of engineering is that you can’t cheat your way through it. If you work hard enough and have a sound understanding of what you’re doing then you will gain the respect of everyone you’re working with regardless of your gender.

From a woman’s perspective, you just need to have the strength and confidence to speak up and you’d be surprised by how much people are willing to listen.

Winning the Most Promising Trainee Civil Engineer award from CECA Scotland was beyond belief as there were lots of other entrees who were put forward for the award and I very much appreciate that the panel was captivated by my story.

Being nominated for the award by BAM Nuttall was more than enough to show that they value and appreciate the work that I do that’s why I hope that having actually won it further express to the entire industry that BAM embraces diversity. That we are here to provide a strong platform for women to excel in the engineering and construction world.

And I also hope that CECA Scotland continues to give out this kind of exposure to anyone, especially women, in the industry who deserves it. To encourage young women to take on the engineering challenge and to let them know that being a woman would never obstruct them from getting far in life. Through this way, I truly wish that everyone who will reach this blog would see how women play a very important role in shaping the present and the future of the world we are living in.