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- The profile of the garden variety engineer is changing. The older species – almost all were blokes whose distinguishing features include a penchant for dress shorts and long walk socks, a row of pens in their top pocket, an unconditional preference for the slide rule and the logarithmic table, and a capacity to commit to memory the entire Herald Sun form guide in one Friday morning smoko – is becoming harder to find. Evolution has been at work.
And John Beever Australia (JBA) Engineer and Project Manager, Ninna West, has not only watched it happen, she’s been part of it. She grew up in Sydney’s North Shore, with engineering in the family home. She had plenty of opportunity to observe the traditional Engineer in her father, Bill, and his friends. Originally from a farm near Forbes, he studied engineering at the University of New South Wales before embarking on a civil engineering career which has seen him work with Leighton Holdings.
The Wests were one of those families who just got Maths. They could do it. For years school guidance officers directed natural Maths students towards Engineering and, given her family’s connection to the profession, Ninna enrolled at her father’s alma mater. “There were hardly any women in my first year, which was 1997,” Ninna recalls, “and in those days it was still very blokey. Lots of kids from the country. The engineering student’s uniform was tracky-dacks and thongs. There was a lot of beer. A lot of hangovers up the back of the lecture theatre.”
Engineering faculties across the country were notorious. It was a badge of honour to know where the next free keg was on campus, or to crash the Sociology Department’s wine and cheese, and to scrape through each semester with the narrowest of passes and a sup or two.
Ninna took a break from her course. She travelled through North America where she worked in the fashion industry that had captured her interest at the time. So much so that when she returned to Australia she continued to manage fashion outlets – in Geelong and Melbourne.
But Engineering was in the blood. Her re-entry was with EastLink. She had a PR role and also a Quality Assurance role, but ultimately she wanted to work in a field which had engineering at its core. The prospect of being pigeon-holed was motivation for change. She decided to complete her Engineering degree, first with on-line subjects through the University of Southern Queensland, so she could continue working full-time, and then on campus through RMIT.
“So much had changed in a decade,” Ninna says. “The metrosexual had arrived. Styled hair and pink shirts. And study. Students were wanting to get through to get out there.”
While studying she worked at a couple of the so-called Tier One firms – Thiess and John Holland. “They were enormous,” she recalls, “and so the reality was they had become large bureaucracies.”
Ninna was not so keen on the inevitable specialising, or that people operated in siloes, concentrating on their own specific role and the tasks it threw up.
When an opportunity came up at (then) Geotech Group, she was attracted by the prospect of working in a smaller firm. She continued as a Quality Assurance specialist, enjoying the more personal, friendly environment of a smaller organisation.
But she also started to wonder whether she would ever have the opportunity to move into project management. Thinking it might be time to satisfy that craving elsewhere she told the firm she was going to leave. JBA Managing Director, Ray McCann, wasn’t having that. “What do you want to do?” he asked.
Ninna was very clear. “I was pretty sure I wanted to work in operations and project management,” she says. “And once JBA gave me the chance, I loved it. And I still do. I soon realised I was where I was meant to be for so many reasons. The people for one. And also the sense of responsibility, of starting from nothing and working towards an end. I like that. I’m results orientated. I like that sense of purpose. I also like being busy. So stress: yes! Deadlines: have to have `em! And then that final sense of completion.”
The process is never insignificant either. “You take on a new project and you meet new people,” she says. “A huge range of people. I love that I get to be on site, not holed up in an office somewhere, a cog with a very specific function. My role is so much more personal. Much more…holistic. You are always conscious of the bigger picture. You get to know everyone from the traffic controller to the concreter to the Managing Director. You hear their stories. So many backgrounds.”
This includes the (now) ACCIONA team. “We have a wonderfully loyal and capable blue collar staff,” she acknowledges. “And that’s a really important part of us. No-one is treated differently because of their position. They are so important to our organisation.”
So is recruiting, finding people who understand the culture and appreciate the importance of the day-to-day. “We work with Swinburne University and their Industry Based Learning program. We take on undergrads who receive credit for their time here,” Ninna explains. “It also gives the near-graduates a foot in the door. I’m always looking for the active fast-learners.”
In recent times Ninna has managed two major projects. The first was the decommissioning of Ford. And now she is well into the Mortlake Wind Farm job which is providing the roads, foundations and hard stands for 35 wind turbines. She has a base at Warrnambool.
Is it still tough to be a woman in engineering though? “Not at ACCIONA,” she says. “I think we’re at the stage where we’re ‘gender blind’. And I mean that in the most positive way. I think we’re way down the track on this. So far that it is just not an issue. Doesn’t matter who you are, every day has its complications and complexities. It’s just a matter of working through them, logically. I like that challenge.”
This story was written by John Harms.