An engineering career has always been varied, even unpredictable at times, but always engaging, says Colleen Kelly, a Senior Engineer at Fugro.
Getting in early
With my children, I’ve always fostered their creativity and problem-solving skills by encouraging them to find the answers to the millions of ‘why’ questions they have for me. Whether they end up going into engineering or not, sparking an interest in asking questions and finding answers is hugely important in bringing up the next generation of innovators. Watching nature and space documentaries as a child is what got me seeking answers and probably set me on my way to a STEM career.
This early eagerness was replicated in my school years, where the sciences were always a keen interest, even if I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. I was sure I didn’t want a traditional desk job though, so chose to study Astronomy and Geology at what was then known as the University of Glamorgan. Course trips to Mallorca, Portugal and various sites in Wales developed my love for geology, making me determined to find a way into the field somehow.
To Fugro, around the world, and back again
In 2005, I joined Fugro as a soil laboratory technician in Wallingford. This was the start of my journey in the company, which has involved a great mix of roles, locations and experiences. I’ve worked offshore on drilling vessels on the North Sea and gained experience on projects for jack-up platforms, windfarms and pipelines in a variety of roles from shift engineer to site manager. I’ve split my time between vessels, offices and laboratories, meaning the work has always been varied, even unpredictable at times, but always engaging.
In 2012, I left Fugro to join consulting firm Senergy, as a Senior Geotechnical Engineer in Aberdeen, overseeing offshore site investigations. I then moved to Perth in Australia to continue my work with Senergy, before moving back to the UK two years later.
I spent a year freelancing as an engineer and then took a career break to spend time with my new-born daughter. In 2018, I returned to Fugro in their GeoServices division as a Senior Geotechnical Engineer on a part-time basis. I then had my son in 2019 and returned from maternity leave in March 2020.
My role now has me in the office part-time for 20 hours a week, where I’m involved in onshore and nearshore projects, reviewing site and laboratory test data and preparing borehole logs and reports for numerous projects. I’m currently working on a twinbore road tunnel project under the River Thames – this was my first project upon returning to Fugro, so I’ll take great satisfaction in driving through the tunnel when it’s complete.
Be confident in your own ability, ask questions and listen to the advice you receive
Working in my field hasn’t always been easy, and there have been plenty of challenges over the years. Offshore projects often included 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week – with good weather, this could be for 4-6 weeks at a time. Being away from home for so long and missing birthdays, Christmases and family time was especially difficult. Long shifts offshore can be draining, though I’d still try to keep active outside of my hours if I had the energy. And with much of our work being weather dependent, there could be a lot of downtime on vessels where we would have to wait it out. I say this not to put anyone off, but to give a sense of reality to the less glamorous moments in offshore engineering!
I actually loved working away from home, meeting lots of new people and gaining incredible experience in a field that had sparked my interest from an early age. I had lots of fun on shift, sharing plenty of laughter with my team and the crew – there was a real sense of togetherness as we carried out our missions as a tight-knit group.
Nothing else quite like it
I’ve worked in 24-hour daylight and 24-hour darkness in the Barents Sea and been seasick more times than I care to remember, but I’ve also been lucky enough to cruise around the Norwegian Fjords – an experience that most would have to pay a small fortune for! I’ve also undertaken helicopter escape training. I might have needed some help getting over my fear at the time, but now I look back and think about what a unique experience that was too.
So, for those young women who have a love for STEM, even if you’re not sure which path to follow just yet, go out and get as much experience as you can and have plenty of conversations with universities, businesses and anyone you can reach out to in these areas. This industry is often still male-dominated, and that can be daunting, but be confident in your own ability, ask questions and listen to the advice you receive. There are so many opportunities out there with unbelievable, unique experiences like my own, so keep all those doors open and find what you love.
Colleen Kelly, a Senior Engineer at Fugro
International Women in Engineering Day – June 23 – is an awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering and focuses attention on the amazing career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry. It also celebrates the outstanding achievements of women engineers throughout the world. The event is organised by The Women’s Engineering Society.