Our Women in Business blog series continues with an interesting take on working in the engineering industry from JCI’s HR Director, Sonia Belfield:
Women -boardroom

1. You are HR Director for not just the UK division of Johnson Controls, but the Swedish branch, too – how have you got to where you are today? Could you tell us a bit about your career history, please?

I started my career in retail after leaving school, as a trainee manager at Tesco. I felt that going to university straight from school was not the right path for me, so I took a different career path. After progressing at Tesco, I decided I wanted to move into Human Resources. In order to make this change, I undertook a professional qualification with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, as well as a Masters Degree in Occupational Psychology via distance learning. I went into recruitment for two and a half years, before being made redundant. This turned out to be a great opportunity for me – thanks to my hard work and experience in recruitment, I secured a role as an HR manager in a manufacturing company looking to recruit new staff. Since then, my career has grown and developed in a variety of companies and sectors. Throughout my career, the conviction that nothing is impossible and that I could achieve anything has absolutely contributed to my career development and success.

2. What attracted you to your current role?

During my initial career experience, I began to believe that to achieve anything in business, you need to communicate well and ensure people are properly trained to do their role, and I felt that I could contribute to that in an HR role. In my many years working in HR, I have discovered that it is about adding value and achieving business objectives through people. Colleagues need to understand what we are trying to achieve, and we need to ensure that they have the tools and development to achieve those goals.

Both HR and Engineering offer the huge benefit of versatility as a career – you are not constrained by sectors. The nature of the engineering industry offers the opportunity to gain a depth of knowledge, interests, and experience, and these opportunities can help to develop your career.

3. 64% of engineering employers say a shortage of engineers in the UK is a threat to their business. 32% of companies across sectors currently have difficulties recruiting experienced STEM staff, and 20% find it difficult to recruit entrants to STEM.  (CBI Survey 2015) As the HR Director of an engineering company, do you find this is an issue you identify with?

Absolutely. I think that the UK does not invest enough in encouraging young people to take up careers in STEM subjects, and the fact that schools have moved away from doing tri-topic sciences also plays a role. The current system is just not sufficient to show young people the huge variety of engineering/manufacturing careers out there. We are suffering from a huge shortage of engineers with the required skills, as are other countries in Europe, but the UK in particular is not doing enough to promote engineering as a career path. We need to start investing in our future to a far greater extent – engineering businesses need skills, so there needs to be investment in developing people, for example, via apprenticeships.

4. Only 9% of the UK’s engineering workforce are female – the lowest in Europe. Why do you think this is?

I think this is part of the wider issue of a lack of promotion of engineering careers to young people. I think there is definitely an image issue in engineering, too – because it is a male-dominated industry, this can put young women off considering a career in the sector. However, I know many senior women in engineering, and there are plenty of opportunities for advancement. The challenge lies in helping young people to understand the opportunities available within engineering.

5. How can we increase the number of women entering engineering roles?

I think that we need to increase the number of people going into engineering, full stop. I do not think we should focus on women, per se, but rather try to engage young people earlier in their education. This will bring more young adults into engineering, and this increased awareness of what engineering is really like will in turn naturally encourage young women to take up these opportunities.

6. In your experience, is engineering a particularly challenging environment for women?

Despite popular misconceptions, absolutely not – many industries are just as challenging for women as engineering. Working in engineering offers a fast-paced, ‘doing’ environment, and plenty of opportunities to gain varied experience.

7. What advice would you give to young women who are just setting out on their career path today?

Don’t stop being feminine even if you think the environment is very male because it is that diversity which is so valuable in the workplace. I would also say that it is important that you don’t give up, don’t be discouraged by the word ‘no’, and keep going towards your goals, but to ensure that you are not dogmatic either.

Ultimately, there is nothing to stop you other than your own self-limiting beliefs, and that goes for people of all ages and genders.

Written by Florence Sturt-Hammond