Rachael Kristiensen is an Electrical Design Engineer, based in Sheffield. She has over 35 years’ experience and currently works at ITM Power. Rachael is proudly transgender, having begun her transition six years ago. In this interview, she talks to us about her life and career, giving us an insight into the world of Engineering and offering her opinion on Diversity and Inclusion within the industry.
How did you get into the Engineering profession?
I originally wanted to be in the RAF – I wanted to fly. But at the age of 11, I was six foot four and told I was too tall to go into any form of flying, so I thought about joining in an electronics or electrical engineering capacity. In the mid-Eighties, it was common for families to push their children toward an apprenticeship, the mentality being that if you’ve got a trade then you’ve always got something to fall back on.
You don’t necessarily have to have a passion for Engineering to get into it. As my experience shows, it may not be the first job, it may not be the second job, but at some point, you will find a job that gives you the excitement and thrill to get up and go to work
There wasn’t much choice in my hometown of Scarborough, it was either mechanical engineering for a company that produced generator systems or electrical engineering for a company that produced emergency power systems. So, I got an apprenticeship that involved building emergency power systems, GPS systems, and battery backups for the Oil and Gas industry as well as regional electricity companies and just carried on from there.
How did you get into the Engineering profession? In the 35 years you’ve been in the engineering, what shifts have you seen?
I think one of the biggest changes has been around training and apprenticeships. With the exception of some of the big companies that have dedicated training academies, there isn’t an effective training infrastructure. In the past, training was handled in-house by companies and apprentices would learn a lot through onsite and hands-on experience. Companies are now relying on colleges to teach the apprentices, and the colleges are relying on the companies to back up their training with practical training but the two are often uncoordinated. Young people need an opportunity to learn the job itself.
There’s a shortage of Engineers in general, engineering needs to be made more attractive to a broader range of people as a way of helping to fill those gaps
In terms of education vs experience, young engineers now need to evidence qualifications alongside practical accomplishments. Many engineers qualify through the University route, but we are also quite fortunate that in this country the term engineer is quite broad and that provides opportunities in itself and different ways of qualifying. Elsewhere, you can’t actually use the term engineer unless you completed a degree and a postgraduate course in engineering, if you haven’t got that you’re just a technician.
How did you get into the Engineering profession? In the 35 years you’ve been in engineering, what shifts have you seen? How did you get to the position you are in today?
Throughout my career, there has always been somebody that you could go to. I was encouraged to get stuck in and start thinking like an engineer – a lot of this job is problem-solving and mentors helped with guidance, pointing you in the right direction and giving you the tools to resolve the issue. When I finished my apprenticeship, I couldn’t work the really complex systems, but I’d got all the basics to be a CPA and basically start a full production workload.
I may have transitioned but I haven’t actually changed as a person and I still have the same relationships with people
Self-reliance and autonomy are important skills. I was trained in a factory environment, but I had the drive to get more practical experience; If there were problems on-site, I’d volunteer to go on-site for the learning opportunity. I’ve never been very academic, but I’ve always made a point of trying to study what I need to in order to do my job well or gain skills to move on to the next role. I got a job as a multi-skilled maintenance engineer, to learn hydraulics, pneumatics and different types of machinery. From there, I taught myself PLC programming, so I could do the control side of it as well. In my current job, I’m trying to learn a software package that I’ve never used before as it’s not particularly standard in this country. I’ve got deliverables to achieve with it and every time I make a step forward, it’s it makes the day worthwhile.
Dealing with problems whilst working to a project timeline, or say you’ve been on-site for 12 hours and something goes wrong just as you’re about to leave site meaning you have to stay overtime to get things working can be stressful but ultimately make a career in engineering worthwhile
One of my proudest moments comes from working as a maintenance engineer, I volunteered to go and work on-site at a nuclear power station for a month to commission, switchgear. At the time my commissioning experience wasn’t fully developed and to not have any phone calls from site saying, “Why did you send them down? We’re having to redo it all again” felt really good. It wasn’t necessarily the work I was proud of but the scale and the responsibility of the job.
Have you had any eye-opening experiences within your career?
I trained someone straight out of University with a Mechanical Engineering degree who was interested in learning PLC work… he wasn’t electrically minded, and he wasn’t a controls Engineer so he didn’t look at things in a pre-defined way. When I explained things, he’s asked me why we did things the way we did them and came up with ideas and theories as to what we could do to make things more efficient. Initially, my response was “well, that’s how we’ve always done it”. After reflection, I realised he was right; because there were no preconceived ideas about how things have to be done, he was free to step back and frame things in a logical way. In Engineering, we need to make sure we are not stifling innovative thoughts and creativeness. That person now owns his own company and is an incredibly talented controls engineer.
Coming back to D&I, how has your transition affected your experience within the industry?
In the workplace, I don’t consider myself as trans… I’m an engineer, I can either do my job, or I can’t do my job and everything else is irrelevant.
Over the years, people’s attitudes have changed and there’s more tolerance and acceptance – not for trans people, but generally for everyone. With this shift though, I think people have become more reluctant to voice things for fear of being of causing offence; this more often than not is good-natured and is not mean-spirited. Conversely, it actually widens the gap between colleagues and heightens alienation. For Diversity and Inclusion to work, there’s got to be movement from both sides, companies have got to find a balance that prevents discrimination but also doesn’t promote resentment by rigidly fixing rules that make people uncomfortable.
I originally wanted to be in the RAF – I wanted to fly. But at the age of 11, I was six foot four and told I was too tall to go into any form of flying, so I thought about joining in an electronics or electrical engineering capacity
I may have transitioned but I haven’t actually changed as a person and I still have the same relationships with people. By finding humour in my situation, I think people are more comfortable around me. Being light-hearted and laughing at myself (obviously not at my expense or the expense of other transgender people), I communicate that I don’t take things personally and my colleagues do not have to be on alert/ watch what they say around me. You spend an awful lot of your life at work, so to be constantly stressed about causing offence or walking on eggshells isn’t healthy for anyone.
Has Engineering become more diverse?
Engineering is by and large, white male heterosexual industry, however, there are very qualified Women Engineers and POC Engineers out there. Businesses could be doing more to attract underrepresented groups when hiring for roles, often they’ve got a very narrow focus of what they want and a perception as to who they think can do the job. For example, job descriptions are still written in a style that encourages applications from one demographic.
We are also quite fortunate that in this country the term engineer is quite broad and that provides opportunities in itself and different ways of qualifying. Elsewhere, you can’t actually use the term engineer unless you completed a degree and a postgraduate course in engineering, if you haven’t got that you’re just a technician
There’s a shortage of Engineers in general, engineering needs to be made more attractive to a broader range of people as a way of helping to fill those gaps. With the speed at which technology is changing and new disciplines being developed (renewable energy and internet of things for example), a completely new skill sets are now needed. However, if we’re not getting people into the basics, we’ve got no chance of filling the high-level disciplines.
Lastly, what advice do you have for people starting out in Engineering?
Think about where you want to go and look at what you want to do. Just keep trying, you will make mistakes and that’s ok as that’s how you learn. Apprentices I work with know I’m on the end of the phone, but I encourage them to try and work it out for themselves, to think logically about what they’re trying to do. Dealing with problems whilst working to a project timeline, or say you’ve been on-site for 12 hours and something goes wrong just as you’re about to leave site meaning you have to stay overtime to get things working can be stressful but ultimately make a career in engineering worthwhile.
Self-reliance and autonomy are important skills. I was trained in a factory environment, but I had the drive to get more practical experience; If there were problems on-site, I’d volunteer to go on-site for the learning opportunity
You don’t necessarily have to have a passion for Engineering to get into it. As my experience shows, it may not be the first job, it may not be the second job, but at some point, you will find a job that gives you the excitement and thrill to get up and go to work. However, you’ve got to keep pushing yourself to find it.
This interview was conducted as part of our Let’s Get Inclusive initiative, which aims to spotlight key individuals and role models within the Technology and Engineering spaces.
Our Engineering team works with a variety of passionate and innovative clients. To understand our specialisms, take a look at our dedicated Engineering page. If you’re currently looking to recruit a tech professional to join your team, send your requirement to Engineering Delivery Lead:
T: +44 (0)161 710 2317
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