Why I Love the Factory

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I always saw myself working in an office. As a teenager, my vision of office life was glamourised by films and imported American television: stiletto heels, pencil skirts, an ultra-modern office in a skyscraper. It’s an image that will most likely not become a reality.

 

I do actually work in an office at the moment. Instead of a skyscraper in London, it’s a two storey 1960’s building in suburbia where not even the directors wear suits or ties. I had my stiletto heels and pencil skirt moments (not at the same time). The 2 inch heels were abandoned after four hours from the combined effect of feeling ridiculous wearing them and the four large blisters that had formed on the backs of my heels. I swapped the skirts for trousers as the time spent tugging the hemline closer to my knees became too much to tolerate. Office life does have its perks, the biggest being that it’s a five minute walk from my house meaning I’ve never had to eat lunch at my desk once.

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I thought the factory would be a grim place to work. Even on a clear, sunny day, the view full of grey steel tanks, structures and columns is hardly a pleasing one. During our induction fortnight, we toured each of the factories: the noises of motors constantly whirring, the smell, and the general lack of cleanliness didn’t exactly improve the ambience.

 

It all changed in my fourth week of placement, when I was sent to a site on my own for the first time. I’m not sure if it was the newly acquired sense of purpose walking through the factory with my hard-hat of hi-vis on,  or the fact it was common place for employees to take a break mid-morning to get a full-English breakfast from the canteen, but I found myself buzzing with extra energy and my three-day assignment whizzed past.

 

There’s a difference between office and factory environments that is starker than their aesthetics. The easiest way to explain this would be to describe head office as central London, and the factory as a country village. At head office, there is no shortage of people all going about their daily business, but without making an active effort to make new friends, your circle of people is limited to those who share your corner of the office. At factory, everyone knows everyone. When I walk around and someone passing in the opposite direction says “Morning” in a broad Norfolk accent, it always brings a smile to my face.

 

At lunchtimes as well, you notice the difference. At HQ you will see several people eating lunch at their desks; a handful will eat at the little 5-seat tables in the canteen, and some will even miss the meal altogether because their schedule doesn’t leave time. Not at the factory: meal times are treated with a little more respect. Whole teams will eat together. At one of the sites, someone had pushed a group of tables together to make one that seated 20 people. No matter who you are, you would get your lunch, sit at the big table, and talk with whoever else was sitting there. I made more friends at that site during one lunch-hour than I had during four weeks at HQ.

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Despite the villagey atmosphere at factory, the pace of life is by no means slower. As I will come to explain in a future post: an Operations Engineer’s work is never done. Never.

 

The most labour-intensive job in the business is cleaning, and that gets contracted out. The simple, repetitive routine that our grandparents and great-grand-parents who worked in factories endured is a far cry from the modern plant. We have operators who monitor the process from the control room and shift teams who make sure everything runs smoothly. The engineers, managers and technicians who aren’t on shift liaise with the shift teams and operators to find ways to resolve problems and optimise the process while simultaneously co-ordinating the planning and delivery of the many improvement projects planned for the factory.

 

It’s a healthy way of working. The staff are often moving from one area of the factory to another several times a day, rarely spending more than an hour at a time at their desks. It suits better than my desk at HQ where I need only walk 20 steps to the toilets and 15 steps to the coffee machine.

 

Factory life can, however, be frustrating at times. Every single person in the business whether they are based at factory or at head office acts in the best interests of the business, but differences in opinion are common. And for the factories, some decisions are beyond their control. It could be a case where the business had made a decision to standardise on a particular type of equipment but one of the sites prefers another, or it could be a multi-million pound project that a team of engineers had spent months planning being cancelled.

 

There is no doubt that factories can be enjoyable places to work; even when you’re outside on a cold day with rain pounding onto your hardhat while you try and locate a non-existent instrument on an out-of-date Piping & Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID). When you put on your hard-hat and fluorescent orange overalls, you leave what was normal and enter a different way of life, where the pace of life is quick and the banter is free-flowing.

 

Most importantly, it is proof that glamour does not equal satisfaction. Unfortunately, convincing others of this fact is more easily said than done. Until industry and the media learn to collaborate to publicise/glamourise engineering, the perks of factory life will remain a well-kept secret.

 

 

young women who love engineering

“Last year only 400 girls started Engineering degree courses [UK], whilst 58,600 studied Health and Social Care.”

Incredible

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Engineering envelops every aspect of our lives, yet here in Britain it is much undervalued by a huge percentage of the population. According to a study by the Robert Bosch Group only 23% of the young think Engineering is of any importance to our economy.

So why aren’t the young, and girls in particular, being attracted into Engineering? Last year only 400 girls started Engineering degree courses, whilst 58,600 studied Health and Social Care.

The image of engineers as greasy men in dungarees or hardhats, faced with factory closures has been hard to shrug off. It has prejudiced the views of many parents and teachers in guiding teenagers away from careers in engineering.

A situation not helped by the manner in which many of our engineering businesses present themselves as data driven organisations underplaying the importance of the people who work within them.

What is needed now is for the engineering…

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How to Make the Most Out of Your Internships: A Practical Guide

Following on from ‘Engineering Tip #2: challenge yourself, challenge your colleagues’, this post from Aluar Rahman is a great guide of how to get the most out of an internship regardless of whether you’re in engineering or not.

I cannot emphasise enough how important the last line is: “The Last thing you want to do is just sit quietly at your desk, doing your work, and be that awkward intern everyone talks about once you’ve left.”

Cheers Alaur

Engineering Tip #1: Don’t forget to interview the employer

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I find it incredulous how companies are allowed to get away with not telling their new recruits what function of the business they will be working with and what it entails until they turn up on their first day. The problem is, students can be so transfixed on securing a job, extremely aware of the competition, and keen to not say anything to put off an employer, it is all too easy for large household name companies to lure in students based on the strength of their company’s brand alone.

Six months ago, I had the privilege of representing my company at a recruitment fair at the University of Loughborough. Any 2nd year engineer studying at Loughborough is incredibly lucky for their faculty to put on a fair where employers are purely focused on recruiting for internships rather than graduate schemes. It was great for me too: it was an opportunity to talk with tens of interns who like me, were less than 4 months into their placements.

It did not take long to notice a trend in their experiences. Nearly all agreed industry was different to how they imagined. Many felt that there job lacked opportunities to apply the technical knowledge they had learned in industry, and some were even placed in non-engineering functions of their business.

I could easily relate to their concerns. Though I was overall enjoying my job and had plenty of positive things to say about it, there was the issue that my background in control had (at the time) been of limited use in my line of work. There were also two key things I didn’t know before my first day:

1. That my job role would fall into the category of ‘Asset Management’

2. That the mathematical and programming skills that I had painstakingly developed over three years of university would have limited use in the Asset Management world

It was then I started questioning how realistic my expectations of the engineering real-world were. It didn’t take long to realise how vague my expectations were.

I saw myself working on control systems for chemical processes, so I applied for oil & gas, food and chemical companies. This brings me onto another three things I didn’t know:

3. Large manufacturing companies have a tendency to contract out specialist work to external firms

4. There is more to control engineering than the design and development of control systems

5. Different teams of engineers have very distinct roles and responsibilities, even if they studied the same discipline of engineering at university.

 

It should have been obvious, but I was so focused answering the questions aimed at me at the interview that I forgot that the interview was a two way process. I didn’t even ask what I would be doing on the job.

In the end, I was lucky: asset management turned out to not be as dull as it sounded and I was given an opportunity to join the project engineers on a large high-profile project. I have friends who didn’t share my luck, but only being on a temporary contract, they have the opportunity to pick a graduate employer with a bit more care.

Not every engineering job in a company will be high-profile or make good use of all of the technical skills used at university; there are plenty of interesting jobs that lack the glamour to be used in engineering outreach campaigns. Whatever your ambitions, make sure you and any potential employer are on the same page. When you are committing up to four years of your life when signing a contract for a graduate scheme, the element of surprise won’t always be welcome.

The Blog has Begun!

Hello!

My name is Ally and I am a control engineer working in Operations in the chemical industry.

Encouraging girls to consider engineering as their choice of career is a cause I hold close to me, and I have huge respect and admiration for the scores of engineers out there both male and female who make it their mission to do so.

However, there is another challenge that holds the key to the mass conversion of young people to engineering, and it goes deeper than the widely held misconception that it involves lots of physical labour. Engineering is diverse. You have the various disciplines: mechanical, electrical, systems and chemical etc. but each discipline has different meanings depending on which sector of industry you work in. Take mechanical engineering for example: the work of a mechanical engineer who models air flow around an aircraft wing is vastly different to one who strives of improve the efficiency of a manufacturing plant.

I believe engineering is a victim of its own diversity. Without clarity and awareness of the various types of jobs within the disciplines, people must take a leap of faith when they make the choice to become an engineer. Not everyone will be prepared to take that leap.

I will be drawing on my experiences of industry to shed some light some lesser known areas of industry with the goal of helping people match specific types of  jobs with their own skills and strengths. For the latest updates on this blog and other bits of information, please follow me on twitter, @AllyTheEngineer.

Thanks for reading!