Jennifer Gilleece


Instead of being an engineer I was almost a speech therapist - probably not the typical combination of potential careers! When I was in school, thinking of what I wanted to do in university, I thought about what I liked to do and my favourite subjects. I always enjoyed maths and figuring out how things worked but I also liked helping people and making a difference to them. I also really enjoyed baking but decided that I’d prefer to keep that as just a hobby! Having looked at the wide range of courses available I attended university open days and learned more about the different types of engineering and did a work experience placement in hospital, including a day with a paediatric speech therapist. I really enjoyed my placement with the speech therapist but realised that engineers also help people – perhaps not normally on a one-to-one basis, but what engineers do, help people and society enormously. Buildings, including houses, schools and hospitals; utilities like water, electricity and phones; transport including rail, roads and air; etc - all the things that are essential to living the way we do wouldn’t exist without engineers. Also, it’s not just the big or structural things that engineers work on but computer chips, mobile phones, computer games, medicines, fibre optics, manufacturing, etc too. I am a telecoms project engineer for Network Rail and get to help make a positive difference to the thousands of people travelling through stations and on the infrastructure I have worked on renewing and enhancing. I am based in Birmingham but also regularly work in the office in Manchester, although my projects can be anywhere between the Scottish border and London.

I work on projects throughout the full project lifecycle, from when it is decided that a project is needed to do some new work, to handing it over for the equipment to start being used and for our maintenance colleagues to maintain it and keep it working for typically the next five to 20 years. I manage all of the engineering aspects of telecoms renewal schemes, and the telecoms engineering aspects of medium to large enhancements and major rail infrastructure investment projects. My work also includes producing designs for telecoms renewals projects - recently I produced the outline design for the public address at five stations in the north of England, to satisfy the project remit, station passenger requirements and in line with all relevant standards, including the Equality Act.

I really enjoy my job and the variety it has. I work on all elements of railway telecoms so get a good range of experience and am always building my technical knowledge about the different technologies - this includes technology typically used at stations (such as CCTV and PA equipment) systems used in the running of trains (such as line side telephones, cabling and GSM-R), legacy equipment and modern telephony. I also feel a great sense of achievement when I have worked hard on a project and then see it implemented with the equipment in, working and improving people’s journeys. Sometimes members of the public will know immediately that the project has been done when it is part of a station information system like the PA renewal I worked on in Marylebone recently. Other times it will be less obvious to the public because the work will have been done on the operational railway but they will never the less benefit through a more reliable, faster or smoother journey depending on the project. I often get told by people who ask what I do, that “you don’t look like an engineer” or “an engineer, that’s an unusual job for a girl”. A lot of people who are engineers don’t “look like engineers” (or more accurately, like what a stereotypical engineer might look like). Some engineers will spend a lot of time outside or in safety or specialist work clothes, others don’t. I get to do a bit of both – some days I’m on site doing surveys, meeting installers and maintainers, inspecting work which has been built to ensure it is good quality and complies with the design and all relevant standards. Those days I wear safety clothes with warm layers underneath, depending on the weather. Other days I am in the office having project meetings, meetings with project sponsors, contractors, suppliers, city councils, station/train operators, etc, carrying out documentation reviews and producing documentation and coordinating engineers from other disciplines working on my projects. On office days I typically wear business clothes. Outside work there is no reason to dress/look how other people perceive your profession unless you want to, how many doctors do you see walking around in white coats on their days off?!

As for engineering being an “unusual job for a girl”- statistically, female engineers are relatively uncommon but there is no reason for this to be the case or for anyone to not choose to be an engineer because of it. In the project teams I work in there are a mixture of men and women, people of different ages and from different backgrounds. Everyone has their own roles and specialisms be it engineering, health and safety, project management, etc and working together respecting the differences is important to delivering a successful project.

Another of the great things about engineering is that the skills learned in an engineering degree/qualification are very adaptable to other roles and desirable to a wide range of employers. Among the people who graduated from my university, with the same degree and at the same time as me, have a very wide range of jobs (including finance, the armed forces, health and safety and of course various roles within engineering), even within my own career I have been a technical writer and a toothbrush engineer in a manufacturing plant before joining Network Rail.