Sharon Lane

Women in engineering are often asked why they chose that particular career, and I suppose people want to know whether there were early signs.  Looking back I did like helping my father in the garage, I had a little motorbike which I loved, and I liked Lego and Meccano.  But I also enjoyed painting, the piano, languages, and literature, and I think I was fortunate to have parents who just let me run with what I wanted to do at the time.  At school I always enjoyed maths very much, but as I followed this through at A-level and degree, I found it less interesting as it didn’t seem relevant to real life.  I switched subjects a number of times and ended up leaving university after two years, without a degree.

My family have a medium-sized heavy engineering company and I had worked there during holidays since my early teens.  I’d always loved the atmosphere of engineering, the sense of purpose and producing something, playing a part in huge projects, bridges, power stations, things that keep the world going round.  So I decided to do an apprenticeship at the family business.  I went to a local training centre and learned hand tools, welding, manual and CNC machining, CAD/CAM, and technical drawing.  I also enrolled on an HNC in mechanical engineering at Teesside University, studying for this qualification alongside taking the practical NVQ II and III in engineering production.  As I approached the second year of the HNC, Teesside was running the BEng mechanical engineering degree accredited by the IMechE – meaning it led to membership – for the last time.  I didn’t want to miss this opportunity so I enrolled on the BEng first year, but after my previous experience I also didn’t want to come out with no qualifications again, so I continued with the HNC second year at the same time.  This was hard work, two university courses, the apprenticeship, and working in the pub for extra money, for that year, but it was worth it as I got the HNC under my belt.  As it happened I did continue with the BEng and graduated with first-class honours in 2003.

In the meantime I finished the apprenticeship and applied to local companies to work on unpaid works experience.  I got a placement in 2001 at a large engineering company, working in the drawing office.  This led to a permanent job as a trainee design engineer; I did engineering drawings, learned thermal and structural calculations, and how to design blast and thermal protection systems for critical items such as emergency shut-down valves on offshore installations.  There was a lot of desk-based design and drawing work, but also working with the manufacturing shop floor, speaking to and visiting customers, and measuring up jobs on site.  I did the Offshore Survival training so that I could measure up and inspect on platforms, and I had to travel quite a lot around Europe.  Over several years I went on to become the senior engineer for the department which involved more dealing with customers and planning the workload, ensuring drawings and designs were produced on time.

I was interested in management and I applied for a place on the MBA at Durham university.  I took this degree by distance learning; it was a very flexible course structure and it meant I could focus on it heavily for one six-month period, then spend time on my work and family during another.  It took five years in total to complete and I graduated at Durham Cathedral in 2009 with distinction.  During that time I’d had two daughters and I had also moved back to the family business, this time as General Manager, with my father as MD.  My work now covers all aspects of the business, commercial, employment, legal, environmental, but I am always involved in production – maintenance, production planning and methods, quality, safe working systems, training, apprenticeships.  We do sub-contract machining, fabrication, testing etc. and so I see a very wide range of components for different customers in different industries, and we are constantly challenged and interested.  

I am extremely fortunate to have a job that I enjoy so much.  It’s important to me that the business is successful, that we are proud of it and that we have a positive impact on our employees, our local area, our customers.  There are people here with incredible skills and experience and we have a duty to ensure these skills are not lost to future generations, so I take time to work on our apprenticeship schemes.  The UK’s engineering ability is getting a little more attention now, but we have to do a lot more to show that our excellent engineering capacity can and does compete on a global scale, to get the investment we need and to attract bright young people to the profession.  Engineering is the most exciting, rewarding, and challenging career you can have, and if you are good enough and a grafter, you should choose it!

Sharon Lane