Supporting and mentoring returners back into the world of work

People coming back into engineering is a key part of addressing industry skills shortages. Here, project manager Manjit Sandhu talks about her experiences as an ‘AECOM Returner’.

It’s a common misconception that engineering is a career that you embark on following a university degree in the subject then straight into a job at 21. But that’s not always the case. My career began as a lawyer and over the years I have worked in broadcasting, music and telecoms before taking a ten-year career break from the office environment to raise a family. 

It may seem daunting to return to the world of work after a ten-year break but I was fortunate to have come across AECOM’s Returners programme, which is aimed at those with mid to senior level experience who have been out of the workplace for a significant period and wish to return to work.

Having never worked in an engineering environment, I discovered that many of my skills and strengths, such as critical thinking, analysis and drafting, are transferable. I am now in my second month working as a project manager for AECOM’s buildings and places team.  

The Returners programme offers a paid placement coupled with a structured programme of support including training, coaching and mentoring to help participants reacclimatise in to the corporate landscape, build up their confidence and undertake any training/knowledge updates as required. The paid placements are six months long and where possible it is anticipated that this will then lead to a permanent role within the organisation. It’s a great opportunity to see if the job is right for me, if I’m right for the job, and to gain experience in the world of engineering. 

There are many reasons why this programme makes good business sense as well. It enables the company to target an untapped group of highly qualified and experienced professionals and address the skills gap that exists particularly at more experienced levels of our industry. It also helps increase our diversity at senior levels in the business as the programme has been of particular interest to women who have taken time out to raise a family. However, it is important to note that AECOM considers this programme open to all, including males who may have taken time out for similar reasons. 

Reflecting on International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June, I think that there are numerous reasons why young women should feel inspired by a career in engineering. It’s one of the most dynamic and exciting industries in the UK to work in right now. At a time when many sectors are struggling, infrastructure schemes are experiencing huge investment and the future looks positive with all the main political parties recognising the importance of infrastructure investment for the economy. Engineering contributes 26% of our GDP or £127,580,000,000 to our economy.

A brief glance up from my desk shows that the industry is changing. I work amongst a diverse group of people including female directors, quantity surveyors and project managers. Yet the Royal Academy of Engineering reported that “every year, thousands of young people choose one of the best-paid careers: one that offers opportunities for foreign travel; has an enormous number of kinds of interesting work; is very well-respected; and has excellent career prospects – all the way from work experience, to getting your first job, to quickly advancing into management. 

Every year these young people are mostly boys. We need to tackle the misconception that engineering is not a career for girls. The industry is keen for female students to understand the benefits and rewards of this career which include generous remuneration, a good work life balance and the potential to impact everyday lives through design and infrastructure.

One of the most important steps to encouraging diversity is to capture the imagination of our industry’s future female engineers from an early age, ideally while they are still at school. There is now very little gender difference in take up of and achievement in core STEM GCSE subjects and that needs to translate to the workplace.  

It’s wonderful that today’s female engineers are visiting schools and colleges, as STEM ambassadors, to introduce the profession to young minds.  An inspiring, award-winning female engineer recently spoke passionately at my daughter Ava’s school and it left a lasting impression on a room full of girls. Such schemes are creating a wave of inspired young women to enter the profession and pave the way for future generations to do the same.

Manjit Sandhu is a project manager at AECOM.