ESB engineer and STEPS volunteer Majella Henchion explains how she found herself in UCD studying mechanical engineering and talks about the areas of her own life that engineering has enhanced. In this article, Majella discusses what working as an engineer is like and why she decided to volunteer with STEPS
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With Engineers Week just a matter of weeks away (March 4 – 10), engineers and engineering organisations all over Ireland are busy planning events aimed at inspiring young people to consider engineering as a career.

Through the Engineers Ireland STEPS outreach programme, in partnership with Science Foundation Ireland, hundreds of schoolchildren will be meeting volunteer engineers from all disciplines during the week, with dozens of engineers planning classroom visits in their local communities.

Majella Henchion, group safety assurance manager for ESB, studied mechanical engineering at UCD before going on to complete a master’s degree in maintenance management at Manchester University.

A regular volunteer with the Engineers Ireland STEPS programme, Majella took some time out this week with the Engineers Journal to explain what inspired her to pursue a career in engineering, what she loves about her current role, and why she decided to volunteer with STEPS.

When you think back to when you were a secondary school student, what was it that attracted you to study mechanical engineering at UCD?

When I was in secondary school there was far less information available than there is now.  We had a career guidance teacher but as I was a bright all-rounder the sum total of her advice was that I could do anything I wanted.  We had no university open days to go to and so it was up to me to investigate things.

I was lucky in that I was expecting to go to college and I had three older siblings and very engaged parents.  I sat down with the CAO handbook and ruled out all the things I wasn’t interested in.  I knew I was most interested in science and maths and within science my interest was in physics and chemistry.  My squeamishness ruled out all things medical so quite quickly I was down to engineering and science.

I was lucky that I had a father and two brothers who were engineers and so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be capable as I was just as good academically as my brothers.  In fairness, they didn’t try to talk me into or out of it either.  Part of me wanted to do something different from my siblings but in the end the desire to do something practical, with so many possible career options at the end, is what swung me to engineering over pure science.

My desire to solve problems was strong even then.

Having been through it, and as somebody who is now working in a full-time engineering role, what advice would you offer to a student who is considering a career in engineering?

Going into engineering is a great way of keeping your options open while learning skills which can be of benefit to you in any career you choose.  My degree has allowed me to fulfill highly technical roles for sure but I have also used the skills and tools I honed in college to work in market research, to carry out financial appraisals, to work in human resources, to be a people manager and to become a better mother!

So my advice is, if you are interested in maths and science, if you are curious about how the world works and you think you might like to help solve some of the problems facing the world, then engineering is a great place to start.

Even if you are not certain that you want to be an engineer, don’t forget that a degree in engineering can open doors to all kinds of possibilities outside of the engineering field.

I would strongly advise students to explore as many options as possible, ideally in Transition Year (TY) and fifth year rather than leaving it until sixth year. If at that stage they come back to engineering then they then need to look into the courses on offer, the minimum entry requirements and whether or not the course is accredited by Engineers Ireland. An accredited degree offers the option of working outside of Ireland and ensures a degree of certainty as to the standard and quality of the course.

Finally, unless a student is absolutely certain about the kind of engineer they want to be, I generally advise going for a general entry course in a college with options to specialise later.  I didn’t think I wanted to be a mechanical engineer when I started in UCD but, over the course of my first year, I changed my mind and I know I was right to do so. Interestingly, my daughter, who thirty years later is at that same point of choosing her discipline, has discovered that she may not want to be the mechanical engineer she arrived in college planning to be, and is leaning towards electrical engineering at the moment.

What is your favourite aspect of your current role at ESB?

I don’t know if I can pick just one!  I think what I look for in every role I take on is the opportunity to improve things through working with other people.  Tackling the difficult issues that are getting in the way of progress, and knowing I have made a difference when I move onto something new, is very important to me.

Right now I am working in safety in ESB and I really enjoy designing solutions which will make my colleagues and the public safer in the long term.

You have been volunteering with the STEPS programme for a number of years now. What is it about volunteering that makes you go back every year?

I’ve been volunteering with STEPS for a long time but every time I host a site tour, do a school talk, attend a careers fair, host a TY student on work experience or run an Engineers Week event I get a real buzz out of talking with the students and opening their eyes up to the diversity of engineering.

It is extremely satisfying to see people recalibrating their own understanding of what an engineer is.  While it is great to turn someone on to engineering as an option for them, I also love helping their peers to see engineering in a new way so that they will be more supportive of their friends’ choices but also so that they will be more appreciative of what the engineering community does.

Talking with students, their teachers and parents about engineering has also been known to re-ignite my own passion for my profession and my job from time to time. It gives me a chance to step back from the detail of what I am doing and appreciate the broader picture of what I am a part of.

As an experienced volunteer is there any advice that you would offer to an engineer who might be considering the idea of getting involved with Engineers Week 2017?

Go for it.  It’s great fun.  I think the school talks can be a great way to start.  Don’t worry about having to talk about yourself because you know lots of other engineers you can talk about too!

The materials on the STEPS website are a great place to start and as you gain experience you will also gain confidence to work more and more from your own personal experience.  If you can, get a colleague to go with you – a double act is easier to start with and more entertaining for the students.

Going to a school you have a personal connection with can be great too – whether you are a past pupil, a parent, a grandparent or a local resident. Never worry about being too old – everyone older than 22 is old to school children!

ESB has always been a great supporter of Engineers Week. What have been the successful standout events that ESB has run for Engineers Week in the past?

ESB engineers have been taking part in Engineers Week since its inception but it is only in the last few years that we have organised large scale events. We now have over 250 engineers who have volunteered to be part of the STEPS programme – from graduate level right up to the chief executive.

We have such a variety of engineering in the company that we can now cover quite a range of areas in our events.  Last year we converted our head office canteen into a careers fair venue for senior cycle students, their teachers and parents.  We had over 50 engineers from across the company hosting stands on engineering activities as varied as civil and structural engineering, conventional power generation, solar and wind energy, smart networks, domestic energy consumption management, telecommunications and broadband infrastructure, environmental and sustainable futures.

The buzz was great and the engineers seemed to have as much fun catching up with each other and finding out about what the other engineers were doing as the students and their parents.  The year before we ran an event for TY students where they got to cycle through four different areas showing off different aspects of engineering and then to mingle with a bunch of engineers over refreshments and ask the questions they didn’t want to ask in front of everyone else.  We even took that event on the road and ran it in our offices in Cork as well as in Dublin.

At an organisational level, what does ESB get from organising Engineers Week events? Do the staff enjoy getting involved?

For ESB there are a number of benefits to our involvement in Engineers Week. We have always had an ethos of giving more to the community than a power supply and we see involvement with STEPS and Engineers Week as one of the ways in which we can do this.

As a company, with people working all over the country, we are in an almost unique position to be accessible to every community in Ireland and so can provide the STEPS programme with a wide variety of geographically located volunteers.  However, from a business perspective, encouraging more people into STEM, and into engineering in particular, is essential to us. We are working to build a more sustainable energy system and we need talented people to help us to do that. As one of the largest employers of engineers in Ireland, we are currently recruiting in excess of 50 engineers to our graduate programme every year along with significant numbers at other levels as well.

We need to see more talented engineers coming out of college every year and we need to see a greater diversity in the people who are doing engineering as well so that we can get a greater diversity in our workforce.  Our engineers really enjoy getting involved – last year we had trouble getting them to leave at the end of the event!

Other staff have also taken the opportunity to find out about the engineering side of the business too and were as fascinated as the students with the aspects of the business with which they were not previously familiar.  Quite a few also signed up their sons or daughters to attend.

Can you tell us a little bit about the exciting events that ESB has in store for Engineers Week 2017?

As always we will have many of our engineers out around the country getting involved in local events but our flagship ESB event this year is a repeat of our 2016 event – only bigger and better!

We are running it on International Women’s Day in Engineers Ireland.  In the morning we are running two “Women in Engineering” career events for female transition year students highlighting the diversity of engineering careers for women in the energy industry.

These will be hosted by one of our most senior engineers, Jacinta Ryan, operations manager with ESB International.  In the afternoon, Paddy Hayes, executive director for generation and wholesale markets, will host a similar event for Transition Year students of any gender and in the early evening we hope to run it one more time, hosted by Pat Naughton, executive director group people and sustainability, for parents, as we know that parents are key influencers of the choices students make.

We are really getting geared up for this year’s event now with the organisation running full tilt. There is a great team of volunteers, both engineers and non-engineers, working on getting it just right and we are looking forward to our best Engineers Week ever.

Majella Henchion, group safety assurance manager for ESB

Majella Henchion, group safety assurance manager for ESB

Majella Henchion is the group safety assurance manager for ESB. A mechanical engineer who graduated from UCD in 1990 and started working in the generation end of ESB that same year, she has worked in a wide variety of technical, managerial and strategic roles in the last 27 years while also receiving a Masters in Maintenance Management from Manchester University in 1994, becoming a Chartered Engineer in 1997 and becoming a Fellow of Engineers Ireland in 2011. 

In addition to her core role, Majella is the graduate engineer recruitment coordinator for ESB, coordinator of ESB’s STEPS programme, a member of ESB’s CPD committee and informal chartership advocate across the company.  Majella is also chair of Engineers Ireland’s Benevolent Fund Committee and of the Membership and Qualifications Board.  To round things off she sits on Council and Executive but still finds time for her husband and family of three teenagers – one of whom is a first year engineering student in UCD.

Engineers Week runs from March 4 to March 10. Engineers are needed to visit schools, libraries and organise events. Find out more about how to get involved at http://www.engineersweek.ie/

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With Engineers Week just a matter of weeks away (March 4 – 10), engineers and engineering organisations all over Ireland are busy planning events aimed at inspiring young people to consider engineering as a career. Through the Engineers Ireland STEPS outreach programme, in partnership with Science Foundation Ireland, hundreds of...