When, at an early age, Claire Curtis-Thomas decided she wanted to be an MP, her mother advised: wait until you’re 40 and make sure you have worked in local government, the private sector and for voluntary organisations. It proved a sound strategy, which she has followed almost to the letter. Moreover, the career she chose before politics was engineering. So when Curtis-Thomas won Crosby for Labour the day after her 39th birthday, the House of Commons gained its first woman professional engineer.
Curtis-Thomas grew up in a staunch Labour family in South Wales. Her father was a British Steel worker who was made redundant. Her `affair’ with engineering – `and it is an affair, I have a passion for it’ she says – began at 18, when the family had moved to Portsmouth. But her political education came from her mother.
Curtis-Thomas faced a career choice: `I only knew I loved maths and working with my hands.’ She is grateful to the careers adviser who suggested she went for a job in Portsmouth dockyard, which turned out to be with a jig tool manufacturer. She took to the job with enthusiasm, unfazed by the macho atmosphere, and stayed until the firm fell victim to the early 1980s recession.
Wanting to continue her involvement with shopfloor work, she was advised `to go into management and work your way down’. A degree in mechanical engineering at University College Cardiff followed, after which Curtis-Thomas joined Shell. After a couple of years in engineering she moved to head its distribution operations, and then led the new environmental affairs unit. This involved `untold numbers of institution and association meetings where the sole purpose was to have another meeting’. Good experience for her current job, she says.
Three years as head of strategic planning at Birmingham City Council gave her the public-sector experience she needed, before being selected as Parliamentary candidate for Crosby. A 10% swing was needed to capture it from the Conservatives, but after 18 months of intensive canvassing, she won the seat with the second biggest swing in the country.
As an engineer MP who is a member of the Engineering Council senate, Curtis-Thomas sees her role as a bridge between the engineering institutions and Parliament.
`My job is to see that the institutions have a legitimate voice where they didn’t think they had one.’ She believes the institutions should influence fiscal policy and legislation, taking an active role. `It’s too late to react when legislation is on the table. They should seek to drive the development of legislation.’
This kind of role would not duplicate the lobbying work of the Engineering Employers’ Federation, she argues: the EEF represents employers, whereas the institutions represent a quarter of a million individuals in companies not necessarily affiliated to the EEF. But she admits: `It’s a significant challenge given the mindset of the institutions.’
The institutions and Engineering Council must speak to government `in a language it can comprehend’ she says. It is no good going to government with `a wish-list but no mechanism for achieving it other than added cost’.
The `difficult equation’ of improving performance without adding costs must be cracked.
The shortage of engineers joining the profession and the need to interest schoolchildren in science, engineering and technology inspired Curtis-Thomas to found an educational charity. Following on from work she had been doing with schools for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and with the help of the local branch of the professional women’s league the Soroptimists, she founded SETup.
The trust organises factory visits and arranges for speakers from science and technology to visit schools. Now in its fifth year, it has arranged events for more than 20,000 children in the north-west; half the children have been under 11 and many have had learning difficulties. Curtis-Thomas plans to expand the trust this year in Liverpool.
Next month, in a keynote speech to a Smallpeice Trust conference, The Engineering Professions: New Messages, New Ideas, she will address the different roles of engineers, from semi-skilled employees through to chartered engineers. She will say that improving public perception of engineering is the responsibility of every engineer.
`They must assert that they play a valuable role in society that other individuals cannot execute. I say to engineers: “When anybody asks what you do, you should say that without you their quality of life would be nothing. We make the difference between a lovely life and a living hell.”‘ But Cutis-Thomas has developed a more concise formulation: `What I normally say is I’m one of God’s chosen few.’
Claire Curtis-Thomas at a glance
Education: BSc Mechanical Engineering, University College, Cardiff
First job: Apprentice fitter, George Kingsbury &Co
Current job: Labour MP for Crosby, Merseyside