My journey into Civil Engineering

My journey into Civil Engineering

Back in 2016, Jenny Nicolson, Site Engineer with BAM Nuttall won CECA Scotland’s Most Promising Trainee Civil Engineer Award. To mark International Women in Engineering Day on 23rd June, Jenny wrote a blog for us on how journey into civil engineering, what her role involves, the challenges she has faced along the way and tips for girls and women considering a career in civil engineering.

Read Jenny’s inspiring story here:

After I graduated from high school in Switzerland, I moved to live on the Orkney Islands with my sister who was 14 at the time. It was just the two of us.

Our father passed away when we were young and my mom’s visa was denied. Our father’s family side lived in Orkney. To support both of us, I started working locally in a care home as a career and then decided to apply to study further with the Open University doing an engineering degree.

The reason why I have chosen to do engineering was because I have always enjoyed solving problems and puzzles and not a day is the same when you are an engineer as I find repetitive jobs boring quite quickly. After carrying out distance learning for 1 year, I left my job at the care home and started an internship with SIP Project management in Shanghai. They were building NIKE’s new headquarters. This was my first experience working within the construction industry. I was carrying out quality control checks and processing contractual documents.

On my return from Shanghai, I decided to apply for jobs within the construction industry to make use of my experience. I applied for multiple jobs but most places wanted Scottish qualifications which I didn’t have as I’d studied abroad. The only place that asked me for an interview was BAM Nuttall. Luckily, I got accepted to be part of their apprenticeship programme.

My first site placement was near Loch Buidhe, we were constructing a new substation. I learned simple setting out and got a chance to carry out bat surveys. I gained further understanding on the importance of being sustainable and minimising our impact on the environment as much as possible. It was a site of special scientific interest, with many rare species located there, such as black grouse and hen harriers.

For my second site placement, I was part of the Leeds flood alleviation programme. We were constructing movable weirs I think it was one of the first in the UK. I took part in a lot of piling works to construct the cofferdam to allow safe working in the river and learned most of the setting out skills there as the work was very varied from day to day.

My third placement was at Blyth offshore demonstrator project. We were construction gravity base foundations for offshore wind turbines. I was part of the pre-cast section where we constructed the roof panels for the foundations and I also carried out quality checks.

Following that, I joined the Copley bridge project in Halifax, where we demolished an old bridge and installed a new footbridge and currently I’m working on the Woolwich ferry project, where we are constructing new ferry berths to accommodate the new ferries being commissioned at Woolwich.

Civil engineering has taken me to so many different places, places that I would have never thought I will end up and it had shown me how beautiful the world is and that we should make changes in our lives to help sustain its beauty.  

Jenny receiving her #CECAScotAward from Keith Brown MSP and our Chair, Rab Bell.

I do find it difficult sometimes on site, being a woman; in certain instances, most people but especially men, assume that I am there to clean or pick up the phone.

I can be in a room and everyone will shake each other’s hand except for mine. When there are questions, they are fired at male personnel rather than myself, assuming that I probably wouldn’t know the answer. I get this less from the labourers but more office staff and suppliers.

I believe that women still have to prove ourselves in this industry and work even harder than men. But I also believe that it is changing and more and more women are in more senior positions now.

I would tell young girls that you can really do anything if you put your mind to it, as long as you have determination and believe in yourself. 

Engineering is not harder or easier than any other careers, with sheer determination and focus you can achieve anything.

Take Malala Yousafzai for example; she was raised to believe that she can do anything and that she had the same rights as her brothers. If her dad had accepted the cultural norm and belief that women are only property and shouldn’t have a right to go to school and express their own opinions, Malala wouldn’t have had the same determination and strength to pursue what she wanted which was an education. She wouldn’t have become internationally known and received a Nobel peace prize.

The construction industry definitely need to give support to young women entering the industry, but women ourselves need to have strength, courage and determination to become successful.

“Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.” Ziauddin Yousafzai