Iconic design: Career tips for young engineers

Sara Killelay joined Icon Aerospace Technology in September 2016 after graduating from Lincoln University. Having shown off her potential, the young product design engineer is now in charge of the company’s CNC fabric cutting process, supplying parts to OEMs including Airbus and Rolls Royce. The Student Engineer caught up with Sara to find out about her time at Lincoln, how Icon is helping her develop, and why engineering is a great career choice that so many overlook.     

Hello Sara. We see you have a degree in Product Design. Where did you study and did it involve any industry work placements? If so, can you furnish The Student Engineer with details such as: where you did your placement, the length of the placement, what you did there, and three core ‘life lessons’ taken from the experience. 

Yes that is correct. I studied my degree at the University of Lincoln from 2013 through to 2016. During my time there, I worked on several live projects for companies including Technology hub, Eco-Glo, SLAM design, Fizzco, and Jason Bradbury.

These were carried out in the university, where we would have 5 hours a week contact time with each of the companies and the rest of the time we would be working to achieve the goals set by them. Each of the above lasted for 1 year, except Eco-Glo, which carried on through the entire three years and concluded in a full design plan for a new product to be released onto the market. Each of the projects included different aspects, including designing, prototyping, engineering and manufacture of products.

Three core life lessons I took from these experiences would be;

  • Take your time! Although the industry is a very fast paced environment and deadlines have to be met. Rushing a job to have it completed in half the required time can and often does result in slight errors along the way. Use all, or if not most of your allocated time and ensure the job is finished and 100% correct to the best of your ability.
  • Creativity is one of the most important aspects of being a design engineer, you need to be able to think on your feet and come up with ways to solve any problems you come across along the way.
  • Don’t give up! Nothing good will come from giving up. If you start to struggle take a step back, look at the problem from a different angle, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

What CAD package(s) were you working with during your studies and how did they help you get your position at Icon? 

I used 10 different CAD packages throughout my studies including Rhino, Draft Sight, Key Shot, SolidWorks, Maya etc.

Through gaining the knowledge to use these packages, not only did they give me the necessary skills to perform my job to a high standard, but here at Icon I use a couple of them on a daily basis. Already having the experience in using them meant I didn’t need to be trained up, which of course is great news for any company.

You studied product design and here you are working as an engineer. Was becoming an engineer your initial goal in life? 

Throughout school, I always wanted to be either a vet, or a teacher of a creative subject. It wasn’t until my A-levels when I finally discovered my love for designing structures and products. During this period, and on into my degree, I was hooked! I couldn’t learn enough about not only how to design a product, but also how the materials work, what structures and forms are best for each job and all the nitty gritty parts which are involved in the design and engineering process.

Can you tell us a bit more about the specialist training you did with Icon? For example, was it classroom based, conducted at work or a combination of the two? What new skills did you acquire on the course?  

All my training has been conducted at work, through the onsite Operations Manager and fellow engineers, besides my training for one of the software packages, which was done through the company direct, using Team Viewer.

However, just getting involved with this interview is another new experience and shows how engineering can take you in all directions.

In what ways are Icon making sure that you stay interested in your position? 

Icon is constantly helping me to develop not only as a budding engineer, but also as a person. I’ve been provided with some fascinating and intricate projects, both on a small and large scale. All of these experiences are now showing benefits on the shop floor, improving production, design and integrity of the products. As a creative problem solver and engineer there is nothing more motivational than seeing my work being put into action and being complimented for my efforts.

We often read about skills shortages in the engineering sector. What advice would you give to a 16-year-old who is considering a career in engineering but is being tempted also by opportunities in other professions? 

There are too many reasons to mention them all, as to why you should choose engineering over something else, but here’s just a select few.

If you have a thirst for creativity, and want to make a real difference to the world we live in, then what better job is out there really? You get the opportunity to constantly develop and evolve your knowledge, often working with different people, from different backgrounds, to build creative bridges and solve problems, which without engineers, would be very difficult.

Not only that, but there always has been, and always will be, a need for engineers, so you know there is always going to be work out there for you. However, unlike a lot of creative jobs, you don’t have to live or work in a big built up city if you don’t want to, there are so many opportunities in this field in smaller cities & towns, rural communities and quite often even in remote country areas.

You’ll have great opportunities to be involved in some interesting and pioneering work, creating new and upcoming technologies, from aeroplane components, through to fixing the human body. You’ll always have money and the best job security you could ask for.

Believe it or not, there are some young women out there that are dismissing engineering as a career. What do you have to say to them? 

Why? Never give up on something you want to do, just because it doesn’t “fit” the stereotype. Go out there, do what you enjoy, and work will never be boring again! Engineers are innovative, and innovation is a never-ending process! Creative thinking and the desire to seek out solutions are key skills that can take you to the top.

More broadly, what advice do you have for any young person considering a career in engineering?

Have a big end goal and set yourself small steps to help you achieve this, be it gaining work experience, discovering what relevant qualifications you will need, making good contacts or learning little life hacks. It’s not always going to be easy, but the best things in life never are.

Decide whether you want to stay in education and complete a degree like myself, or whether you want to gain on-the-job qualifications and do an apprenticeship or similar. Just bear in mind if you want a more lucrative, high-end job and to make it to the top more quickly, higher education or a degree is often a requirement.

I have personally found that the more on-the-job experience you can get, the better chance you have of finding work. Employers are looking for people with a passion for their work, and especially in engineering, someone who is always looking to achieve new goals and will take their company to the top. Therefore, if you’ve voluntarily gone out there and shown your willingness, this can look very good to potential employees.

Know your job. The last thing you want is to end up doing something you’ve not got a clue about. Find out exactly what sort of engineering it is you want to do and take it from there. Companies are looking for the best of the best in their field, so the more you know, the better.

Have people you aspire to be like, research into how what achievements they have made and how this was possible. Not only does this help you to achieve your aspirations to get somewhere, but it also gives you great conversation for interviews etc., which again is exactly what companies are looking for, as it shows you’re keen and have passion.

Sara’s do and don’ts of embarking on a career in engineering

Do choose your field before you start your journey
Don’t leave things until the last minute
Do ensure you know what skills you need to have and are competent at them
Don’t go into a job just for the money, ensure it’s what you want to do
Do get as much experience as you possibly can
Don’t copy anyone’s work, ever! Use it for inspiration, but never, ever copy!
Do listen and take in as much from others as you can, expanding your horizon is never a bad thing
But most importantly, don’t ever give up

Where do you see yourself in 5-years’ time 

Over the next five years I hope to build on the knowledge I already have and use this to work my way up the career ladder. I’d love to have a role with more responsibilities, bigger and better opportunities to create more and help to engineer the world we live in. Although working in aerospace wasn’t my end goal after university, after my experience with Icon, it’s really captured my imagination and has given me a real love for the work we do here. I love constantly seeing the growth of the company and contributing to it.