Sarah Prichard, UK Managing Director & Partner, BuroHappold Engineering

Moon Consulting talk to Sarah Prichard, UK Managing Director & Partner at BuroHappold Engineering about what attracted her to pursue a career in Engineering, how the field of Engineering has changed and how talent attraction and retention has never been more important.

How has the field of engineering changed over the course of your career?

I have been an engineer for just over 20 years and in that time there have been huge changes.

When I joined desktop computers had just become the norm and our technicians had just swapped to CAD. Having just done a PHD and used lots of computers, I felt I was helping to lead the technology charge. I was the first person to think “why am I redesigning this beam when all I need to do is use excel, put the formula in, put a few lookups in and then redesign the beams”. At the time that was a ground-breaking use of technology!

Nearly 20 years later excel is a useful tool, but purely for processing data. We are automating more. Our designs are not only designed by computer, they are optimised by computer. We create intelligent models and 3D visualisations to walk our clients through the building we are designing for them.

We use the data from the buildings we are creating to create a feedback loop – oh that’s what happened when we did this. We are using both quantitative data and qualitative data from customer feedback, performance and acceptability in order to form our designs.

So things are moving hugely.

What made you want to become an engineer?

I went through school being very scientific, but equally really enjoyed history and history was my passion and that is was I was going to do.

I was at a school open day for college and university in Ireland and all the girls had gone off to introduction to business and I swore, which is ironic in the job I have today, that I was never going to do business – what an horrendous idea for a degree. I wanted to see what else was available, I spotted an introduction to engineering and I don’t know what dragged me in that direction it just seemed to make sense, I thought oh my lord I can build stuff.

But again, being me I was never any good at keeping to one thing and I didn’t want to commit because in my head I was still a historian. In Ireland you do a very wide range of subjects for your final exams so I did all the subjects that could let me be an engineer – applied mechanics, physics chemistry, mathematics and also did English, Irish, French and History.

When I’d done my exams and had to make a choice I literally had to toss a coin. You learn a lot more about your emotional response when you toss a coin, if it comes down and you go aarrgghh, then it was the wrong choice, but that didn’t happen it turns out I really did want to be an engineer.

The joke is…. and the rest is history.

What are some of the key challenges you faced over your career?

There have been loads of technical challenges and over-coming those challenges is quite satisfying as an engineer. One of the other key challenges has been dealing with the pressure that comes with operating in a very busy business and learning to cope with that pressure and not to take it out on the people around you or yourself.

Where is the future of engineering going?

We will continue to use technology to optimise designs and give better predictions of the outcome so that we don’t have to have so many ‘what if’ situations built in.

We’ll be doing a degree of 3D printing, which will be one part of the automated construction element, but also we will be constructing more in factories, which again will give us a greater degree of rigor in the actual construction process, allow us to standardise components and improve safety. That will help push the engineering levels.

We will be designing for autonomous vehicles which will have a massive impact on our cities and how they work. Less road space will be needed, and car parks will be tinier and neater, therefore, there will be more pedestrian space. You also need to consider how many cars there will be and how much time they will spend in a car park because as we might loan cars.

There will be huge changes and I think we will use improvements with computers and processing power to use VR and AR and to interact with people in a different way.

What more can we do to address the skills gap and women in engineering

We do need to encourage a more diverse workforce and its ‘easy’ to define a gender-based balance but there are so many others who bring a greater and wider perspective. We have had incredibly talented engineers come from Europe and globally to the UK to support the development of our company, but we are struggling with recruitment more and more and persuading them that they have a great future here in the UK is particularly challenging.

As a company we are working to improve our diversity. We have a Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity, because we want to be more inclusive as an employer. We have a women’s business network, a group that supports the LBGTQ+ community and we are also looking for ways to try and improve our diversity in terms of other forms of balance that we could do with for example, we are signed up to the WISE 10 steps and we are working through that.

Our gender pay gap was comparatively good for the engineering and construction sector – we are quite proud of that but we have still got a way to go because, again, there aren’t enough senior women. 50% of our graduates in the UK are women - we need to bring them, retain them and give them that career development and support through long careers that change and evolve.

One of my roles is to talk about it. To make sure people feel supported, to feel they want to join engineering and then be that role model. I was the only female partner for a short time but I have been joined by two more in the UK, so now that there is a group of us all working in the same way to be recognised as role models and to support others.

Do you think business are having to change their retention models to keep the Y2K generation that is coming through interested?

Yes, they seek careers in the same way that I did but we want to retain the top talent as does everybody else. It’s about finding that balance and also helping them understand the realities of a workplace and the relationship between employers and employees. You need to give them really rewarding careers and recognise the talent and the potential that they have in the business and then, if they are not going to be here for life, let them go, track their careers and try and find a way welcome back in the future.

We are very fortunate in that we bring a significant number of people back to BuroHappold. They think I’ve had enough of that I’m going to try something else and our approach is to say we are sorry to let you go, we really don’t want to, we have tried to retain you but if you are going to go, go but learn and have a fabulous time and then if you’d like to come back, come and talk to us. I think that this is a model we need to continue to develop.

What attributes does an engineer coming into the modern world of engineering need?

Technical skills and spatial awareness are really important but actually the reality is that it is a lot more to do with collaboration and teamwork – can you work as part of a group because you’ll be working as a team to create buildings or infrastructure designs or cityscapes.

It’s also the ability to focus, listen and interpret. Can you work out what a client needs by listening, by empathy and, therefore, work out how we as BuroHappold the engineering consultancy can actually solve those problems and actually get the point so the client gets the outcomes that they want.  

We need technical and creative people who can help push the boundaries. Our greatest engineers are those that can combine both and work as part of a team.

How important is it to you to be seen as a role model?

I think it is really important. I take that responsibility very seriously because I do think there are people I need to support in their careers.

Part of it is being a woman and part of it is being a good engineer but also its behaviours and I think leaders need to exhibit and remember that they need to lead teams, they need to empathise and support, I need to be kind to myself and remind them that they need to be kind to themselves.

What is BuroHappold doing to nurture, inspire and attract new talent

We have quite a significant outreach to communities and schools throughout the UK and internationally to keep people focused on the idea of engineering. We have a year 11 work experience week in the early summer – so they come in and they work alongside our young engineers group.

We work with the Happold Foundation, which is the foundation associated with BuroHappold, and they do scholarships for people going through college. Again, Happold Foundation find us young engineers who are in training and they come in for between 8 and 12 weeks in the summer. We will sponsor some of them through to their final year in college. It is an incredible pipeline of fabulous young engineers and we are making sure we engage with them as they come onboard.

We’ve got a young engineers’ forum in all of our offices globally that provides a network for social, training and support for the young engineers in the first three or four years of their development. We make sure we offer technical and soft skills training courses.

When it comes to retention, we try and make sure that they feel that they have got a career with BuroHappold, and that we are engaging with their performance and their aspirations and finding them ways to develop.

I joined Burohappold as a graduate back in 2001 and I have literally spent my entire career here but I have rarely done the same thing for a very long time. I have always had the opportunity to keep doing something different.

What is the one piece of advice that you would give to someone wanting to go into engineering?

Just do it. Don’t worry about what you can’t do, there’s an amazing and really wide range of careers that comes with the engineering banner - you might want to be a computer engineer or an electrical engineer, or a manufacturing engineer or a mechanical engineer.

If you are interested in designing shelters in the third world or doing disaster relief or being part of our water teams or coming slightly out of engineering and bringing those skills of engineering into project management then you can do all those things.

Engineering is hugely wide and varied no matter who you are, there is no reason why not to because there is a career for everybody and we need to make sure that people want to join us.

The world relies on engineers.

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Moon Consulting understands the many challenges that engineering businesses face when recruiting; from plugging the skills gap by sourcing hard-to-find skillsets, to gender diversity from board-level down. For more information on how we can help you source top talent, contact us on recruit@moonconsulting.co.uk or call us on 01275 371 200.