Industry

22 JUN 2022

WOMEN ARE CHANGING THE FACE OF ENGINEERING, SAYS PHILLIPA SLATER

Since graduating from the University of Leeds in the 1990s, Phillipa Slater has risen through the ranks to become director of engineering at RWE Renewables UK Ltd. Phillipa has shared her journey with Infrastructure Intelligence and argues that the energy sector is evolving, but there is more that we can do to encourage women into STEM.  

From a young age, I have always been interested in science and engineering. I put STEM at the heart of my studies, studying maths, physics, and chemistry at A-level, and undertook work experience placements in the civil engineering sector. I was fortunate enough to have joined a summer placement with Wilson Bowden while doing my A-levels. Here I worked on several major projects, including a new logistics hub in Castle Donnington. This gave me my first real exposure to surveying and engineering. 

This set me on the path to engineering as a career. I accepted a place at the University of Leeds and after four years, I’d completed my Masters Degree in Engineering. While at university, I successfully applied, and completed, three summer placements with the civil engineering team at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, a coal-fired power station in Nottinghamshire.  

I was made to feel like part of the team, and most importantly, like a contributing member of the team who was responsible for keeping the plant running. From day one, I was completing my health and safety training, and it wasn’t long before I was independently producing basic reports and undertaking routine inspections. It was here that I learned how complex and demanding energy generation truly was – but also learned how exciting and dynamic the sector is. 

The road to RWE 

Prior to joining RWE in 2005, I completed the Building Structures Graduate Programme at White Young Green (now Tetra tech). It was new, it was exciting, but I quickly came to realise that after I’d helped deliver one industrial warehousing development, I’d delivered them all. It simply did not compare to my summer placements in the energy sector, it didn’t have the breadth and excitement that I’d grown so fond of. 

In 2005, I took the leap and returned to civil engineering and joined RWE’s technology centre team. Here, I took the opportunity to hone my skills and expertise in chimneys and cooling towers. This saw me work on several major demolitions, including the demolition of two cooling towers at Tinsley Viaduct in Sheffield. This proved to be a major engineering challenge as the towers stood so close to the M1. 

Transition to renewables 

Even early in my career, energy transition was bearing fruit, with some early adopters spearheading the rollout of clean energy generation technologies such as onshore wind and early concentrated solar power plants. While at RWE, I witnessed this micro-revolution begin to unfold and was personally involved in due diligence on emerging technologies such as wave and tidal (turbines and lagoons). 

I was in my element. Not only was I playing my part in pioneering emerging technologies, but I was on the frontline of our pursuit for lower emissions and higher environmental returns. In what other industry could I be playing such a leading role?

In 2012, I was fully embedded in the development of offshore wind technologies, playing my part in managing change at Humber Gateway offshore wind farm and Robin Rigg Wind Farm. Here I was responsible for reducing costs without compromising on safety, efficiency, or environmental protections. That commitment and my ability to deliver saw me promoted to director of engineering, a role that sees me back at the heart of what I enjoy – delivering innovation in engineering.

Building the future

Ours is an industry that does not stand still, and as part of that development, we should not stand still. We should encourage more women into our sector. Renewables are helping power everyone’s future, and women should play a leading role in this. We know the talent is there, but we also know that more women take STEM subjects at university than take up roles in a STEM-focused career. This must change if we’re to create a diverse, dynamic workforce that can respond to the climate change challenges of the future. 

The industry is facing one of the worse skills gaps in a generation. I believe that a funnel approach can make a difference. By this, I mean encouraging more women into leadership positions, to provide university leavers with a sense and understanding of what is possible. 

Phillipa Slater is director of engineering at RWE Renewables UK Ltd.

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