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Global Day of the Engineer: Interview with Stewart Watkins

Engineering can be an extremely varied career with prospects in many different directions - for both men and women. Rullion spoke to Stewart Watkins, manager of Delkia, an electrical power and automation business, who started in a nuclear science and engineering apprenticeship and has grabbed every opportunity since - from being a Nuclear Waste and Treatment Consultant to a Decontamination Specialist.

What inspired you to get into engineering?

To be honest, there wasn’t a defining moment when I thought engineering was for me. I think it’s just built into my DNA, an inherent thing. When I was a lad I was always fascinated by how things worked. My dad bought me a new bike, so obviously, I took it apart and put it back together again, much to my dad’s dismay! I was always fascinated by the inner workings of things. My dad taught Technical Drawing, so there was some influence there, but it was definitely a natural calling.

Where was your starting point to making it a lifetime career?

I wasn’t naturally academic so I didn’t do too well in my A-Levels. In fact, I scraped through Maths, dropped Chemistry but got an A in Technical Drawing. University wasn’t really for me - the idea of going and getting a job appealed more. So I did a scientific apprenticeship at UKAEA and went into nuclear engineering. That meant, from school, I was straight into nuclear active handling - lots of radioactivity, lots of hazards - it was full on, but I learned a lot.

What roles have you had since?

I’ve had hugely varied roles within the industry - maybe in part because of my curiosity in new things and new challenges and wanting to move on to the next exciting thing rather than stick with the norm  - which is unusual as engineers often specialise in a certain area and stick within it. From apprenticeship level, I worked my way up through the scientific side of things at the company I was placed at and, from there, into technical project planning, which I found I had natural skills in and really enjoyed. Since then, I have jumped around a lot between project management and planning for decommissioning projects and oil and gas NORM management, to the more technical side of things working as a safety case author and Decontamination Specialist. At one point, I moved from being an Operations Manager managing a team of 100+ to being a Nuclear Waste and Treatment Consultant. Fairly varied!

I feel moving around so much has stood me in good stead. I haven’t been afraid to give something a go which has allowed me to progress. I’ve always pushed the limits of my own experience and skill base, and I’d really encourage anyone getting into engineering to do the same. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and be prepared to make mistakes.

And your current role now…?

Currently, I’m managing an electrical power and automation business, Delkia. We design, build, install and commission electrical power and automation systems - anything from 11kV switchgear you might see outside the building to the control systems you might see inside the building. It’s a relatively small team at the moment which actually includes more women than men.

What’s been the most rewarding thing in your career?

The highlight for me, and definitely the most rewarding, is being able to help people develop and grow. Taking someone who might feel a bit lost, helping them to find what they’re good at and being able to guide them to progress and develop. That’s why I love the managerial element of my career and what I actually miss when working in a technical role.

Although I love the technical side too, it’s the people in engineering that really inspire and motivate me. I’ve had some brilliant mentors along the way who have helped me and I think that’s an important strength of the industry.

What does your company do to support both men and women?

As a small SME, we use whatever resources we can to support the development and mentoring of our employees.

There’s certainly no differentiation between men and women, though, I see people with the right skills and that’s it. Women aren’t treated differently.

And what about support for women in the industry generally?

I feel there should be an equal level of support regardless of gender. There shouldn’t be any differentiation between men and women otherwise, women will continue to be singled out and that shouldn’t be the case.

I'd like to believe that it’s a misconception that women will have a different experience in the industry. In my experience, most of the teams that I’ve worked in wouldn’t treat a female engineer any differently once they’re in the environment. It’s just getting more young women and girls interested in the first place that’s the issue. In fact, in my current role at a managerial level, women hold many of the organisational and relationship management skills and may be better equipped to do the job, like multitasking. The push to drive women into STEM subjects at school is admirable, but there needs to be more done from an early age and parents have the key role in doing this.

How do you think engineers are helping to improve the world we live in and saving the world one step at a time?!

I think it’s simple. If you look around you and simply open your eyes to what’s there, engineering is everywhere. Engineering is civilisation. Building is engineering, cars are mechanical and electrical engineering, everything we use is engineering. And not just in modern civilisation. Look at ancient civilisation, aquaducts, irrigation, the Pyramids. Everything we understand is through engineering. If we don’t have engineering then we couldn’t even have built Stonehenge! It’s not just important, it’s everything!

What advice would you give to your younger self when you were starting your career?

Know who you are and take the opportunities you get, but don’t be afraid to make mistakes. There are expectations on millennials to be perfect, but making mistakes is part of life, especially in the workplace. As long as you learn from them, it’s ok to get something wrong. I’d also tell myself to recognise my strengths but also to understand my weaknesses and ask for help when it’s needed.

Best advice: forgive yourself, know yourself and enjoy it!
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