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Following in the footsteps of my “glamorous” engineer auntie to join the ranks of the unsung engineering heroes – Helen James, Women in Property South West Member

Helen James is a senior project manager based in the Bristol office of Gleeds, an independent global property and construction consultancy. She trained as a structural engineer before moving into the project management side of construction. Helen is an active member of Women in Property South West, a dynamic regional branch of the organisation that creates opportunities, expands knowledge and inspires change for women working in the property and construction industry.

Helen-James - Women in Property South West
Helen James

“…Every day is different – sometimes you are in the office doing structural engineering, sometimes you are at a meeting or other times you are on site. Sometimes it is all three in one day…”

Following in the footsteps of my “glamorous” engineer auntie from the US

I have always loved learning new things, having a general curiosity to want to find out why things happened and at school I enjoyed science and mathematics! I was lucky in that my aunty is a professor in sound and vibration engineering at Purdue University (in the US) so had exposure to a female role model at a young age.

I only saw my auntie when she was on route or returning from a conference in Singapore or Hawaii, which sounded very glamourous and my grandma would often tell my auntie’s stories about her achievements, painting an impressive image. I understood that engineering was the application of science in the real world, although not too sure what that actually meant in terms of an actual day to day job.

Discovering life as an engineer

Continuing my enjoyment of chemistry, physics and mathematics at A-level with an interest in a career in engineering, my form tutor recommended that I attended a five-day residential course for female students studying STEM subjects to experience what engineering is all about.

I was at the University of Salford, living in student accommodation with practising female engineers, working in teams and assigned different engineering related tasks to complete. There were talks from women telling us about their career and it was a fantastic opportunity to really understand what life as an engineer was like and also appreciate the different types of engineering. At the end of the five days, the decision was made – civil and structural engineering was it!

Becoming a Chartered Civil Engineer

I graduated in 2005 with a M.Eng. (master’s degree in engineering) in Civil and Structural Engineering from the University of Sheffield and I began working as a graduate engineer in the Buildings Structural Engineering Department for AECOM (Faber Maunsell back then) in their St Albans office. I worked for four months and then took a year out to do a ski season and travelled round America, New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia.

My career progressed working on a range of different projects, schools, sixth forms, industrial and leisure buildings, developing my technical and professional skills, gaining promotion on the way and I became a Chartered Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 2010.

In 2012 I moved to the South West and, after a short spell in a small consultancy in Salisbury, I began working at Hydrock, Bristol, in 2013, progressing to principal engineer. (It was at this point I was first introduced to Women in Property). In 2016 I became an associate with Pinnacle, where my role was to grow the office and develop more of a presence in the Bristol and utilise the experience and network I had established in the Bristol area.

After only five months Pinnacle decided to close the Bristol office. Being made redundant is something I hadn’t experienced before and decided to use this as an opportunity to find a role more suited to my strengths and what I enjoy, which led me to project management. I have been with Gleeds for over a year now and I’m really enjoying it. 

Transitioning into project management

As an engineer your primary role is to design efficiently and economically, applying the technical theory through hand calculations, software analysis and 3D models to make a building stand up. A significant part of your time is spent working in a team with other engineers and architects to coordinate and make sure everything fits in the building in the correct place.

Helen James - Redcliff Quarter Bristol visitTeamwork is a huge part of the role and vital to solving problems such as buildability, affordability, logistics and timeframes etc. Every day is different – sometimes you are in the office doing structural engineering, sometimes you are at a meeting or other times you are on site. Sometimes it is all three in one day. I was always a general engineer, rather than specialised in a specific area.

As my career progressed I was focusing more on the management side of the role, managing teams to deliver projects, and generally having more of an overseeing role. Although I can do the technical engineering, and it is something I could always go back to if I wanted, I didn’t feel it was my strength and wasn’t an aspect of engineering that I really enjoyed. So, when considering where to make my next step, project management seemed logical.

Discovering Women in Property South West

Over the last year or so, general statistics are proving that a more diverse and inclusive workforce improves profitability and I cannot see how construction is any different. We are designing buildings for the diverse general public so it makes sense to have a diverse team to represent this demographic.

I joined the Association of Women in Property (WiP) in 2014 attending site visits, networking lunches, evening talks, soft-skills workshops, the student awards final and other industry related events. This really helped develop my network, particularly after moving to a new area and I became a committee member in 2015.

This opened up other opportunities and support lines which were invaluable, particularly when I was redundant and looking for a new position. Women in Property events are topical and appropriate to what is going on in the industry – recent events have been debates about Brexit and Carillion.

As an engineer and now as a project manager I am working on local projects, which means I can put forward site visit events. Everyone is generally interested in finding out what is going on in Bristol and the wider UK and what effect it is going have. It is a great opportunity to share and compare experiences.

Over the last few years Women in Property has grown from strength to strength, typically our events are aimed at both women and men and are very popular in the Bristol and the South West so much so that we are looking for bigger venues to suit the demand.

Engineers: Unsung heroes of the world we live in

Engineers are the unsung heroes of the world we live in. The majority of the general public don’t know what engineers do and the term ‘engineering’ usually comes up in a negative form with ‘engineering works’ that cause delays to roads and rail journeys. For me, International Women in Engineering Day is a great opportunity to promote the fantastic engineering talent we have in this country and highlight the amazing women and their roles within the industry.

Traditionally, the construction industry has been known as male dominated and times are changing. Promoting the women in engineering and construction is vital to create role models for younger generations to understand that there are so many exciting opportunities in science and engineering. There is a skills shortage at the moment and it is vital that we as an industry promote and encourage people to consider construction as a career.

Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day

To mark International Women in Engineering Day this year Women in Property South West will be posting on Twitter short videos of our members who are engineers or in engineering related roles. The videos include the engineer’s position and role, who they work with, an example project and ending with why they enjoy engineering.

The Women in Property Student Awards finalists who are engineers are getting involved too so that we are reflecting a range of different women practising engineering, including those who are embarking on their career and what they are looking forward to. It is important to show that anyone can be an engineer and a video creates a physical image of what female engineers or people in construction looks like, not the stereotypical middle-aged man in a grey suit or grubby builder on site.

Using social media to put your best self forward and promote construction careers

I am keen to promote engineering to everyone. I tweet photographs of progress on my projects or at interesting stages of projects or engineering projects I see day to day and I use the hashtags #Engineering #Construction #Bristol, if I can fit it all in, to give an insight into my life in construction. The “#” should mean that anyone searching those words trying to find out a bit more should now get a better picture of what the industry is all about.

Coming up

Building One at the University of the West of England in Bristol

One of my projects that I worked on when I first joined Gleeds has been shortlisted for a Constructing Excellence South West Award – Building One, Bower Ashton at the University of the West of England in Bristol. It is great that the talent and projects are recognised and fingers crossed we will be coming home as regional winners.

Now that I have transferred my skills to project management I am working towards my professional accreditation and continuing to support Women in Property with my knowledge and experience in future events and promote engineering and the construction industry wherever I can.