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Women In Engineering: Meet WSP civil engineer Rachel Skinner

Women In Engineering: Meet WSP civil engineer Rachel Skinner

 June 23, 2021

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Executive Director at WSP and President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Rachel Skinner, is pushing the boundaries of civil engineering, inspired by the next generation.

Rachel started her civil engineering journey in 1998 when she responded to a job advert in the local paper. Equipped with a first class degree in geography and knowledge of the world of transport, she used her passion, energy and enthusiasm to land her first graduate job. Rachel went on to successfully lead a team of 600 people before becoming the youngest ever and second female president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Here, Rachel shares with Where Women Work her motivation to tackle the climate emergency, the importance of trusting the process and why collaboration sets teams up for success. 

You joined WSP as a geography graduate in 1998. What prompted your move into civil engineering?

It was a complete accident. Nobody had talked to me about any form of engineering as a career option. I graduated with a first class degree but I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So I moved home to the South West and replied to an advert in the local paper which basically said, ‘Numerate, literate graduate wanted. Ideally able to use a computer.’ Or words to that effect.

The job was with a company called Kennedy and Donkin that was eventually bought by WSP. I’d had about two hours of transport planning lectures at university, but that was enough for me to know about PPG13 (Planning Policy Guidance 13), which integrates strategic transport planning at a national, regional, and local level and promotes more sustainable transport choices. I remember mentioning this in the interview and seeing one of my interviewers put a big tick in his meeting book as I’d shown that I had some idea of what was happening in the world of transport.

I got the job and realised I just loved it. I spent the next two years traveling between the South West and Leeds, doing the only accredited transport and engineering masters course in the country at the time, so I could get qualified and chartered with the Institution of Civil Engineers, and I guess the rest is history.

You worked your way up through various infrastructure roles, recently managing a team of 600 people. How do you motivate a team of this size? How would you describe your management style?

I feel that I have an open, approachable and creative way of going about things and I love working with other people. For me, it's always about collaboration and being as inclusive as possible. I love giving people room to explore and space to be creative in their own right, letting them take ownership and accountability. I almost always find that you end up with a better set of solutions if you can include more people with diverse ideas.

How have you managed building a successful career while bringing up a family? What advice do you have for people doing the same?

Over the course of my 23 years at work, I've been in and out of the business on maternity leave three times while having my children who are now 13, 11 and eight. I was lucky to have various line managers who were always supportive during those critical five years. I have worked flexibly for 13 years now and have always had an agreement that ‘as long as the work gets done, it doesn't matter how it gets done.’

I'm married to a teacher and of course that does help in terms of our home set-up, as his workplace is their school and of course he’s at home during school holidays. I don't want to say it's been easy because it hasn't but I do feel a sense of pride that I am a proper mum to my kids. We’ve moved out of the stage where I’m feeding babies round the clock, packing nursery bags or forever re-tying shoelaces but their emotional needs are now growing and changing fast, so I think the time spent together through their lives really does matter.

With COVID, I think this is a fantastic opportunity for us all to grab onto some new and healthier ways of working. It has been quite an eye opener for a lot of people to find new flexibility in the working day. We've all learned an awful lot and if we're clever, we will absolutely hang on to that. In a way, it's much easier now we've all had a big wake up call.

2020 saw you became the youngest president in the Institution of Civil Engineering’s 200-year history – and only the second woman to hold the role. What advice would you give to anyone starting out in their career or looking for a change in direction?

WSP ICE - civil engineers

First of all, find something you love and that you're actually good at. Follow that thread and see where it leads you. If you know you're good at a certain aspect of your role, find ways to build around that and you will add more value more quickly.

Secondly, build your network. Be brave (because everyone finds it hard) and step out into the industry. Knowing people is the best way to build any form of influence or impact, also to fine-tune your own thoughts. Get involved with something because you believe in it. Do something good for other people. They will recognise you are going above and beyond. Your network will grow and new opportunities will start to come from them as well as the team around you.

And finally, have faith that things will work themselves out. I’m not a great believer in long-run detailed plans as I don’t think you can plan everything. In reality, things will most likely work out in a way you would never have expected – and often better. If somebody said to me when I first started working in 1998 that I was going to be President of the ICE at the end of 2020, that just wouldn't have made any sense at all!

As ICE president, your focus for the year is the climate emergency. What motivated you to tackle this issue?

I wanted to pick a theme that was singular, urgent, important and had the potential to bring a lot of people together. We know the vast majority of all the world's carbon dioxide emissions are a result of the way we plan, design and build things, or because of the way we use them for decades because they are built to last over lifetimes. Yet so few people are doing anything about it.

The moment it became definite was when my then 11 year old daughter came home from school in tears after one of her classmates had presented to them on climate change. She challenged me and she said, ‘Why aren't you doing anything?‘ Something just clicked. We are responsible for a huge part of the problem here. I am looking for something to talk about that can have an impact. Well, there probably isn't anything better. 

Seven months on and we are rewriting the story around the purpose of what civil engineering is all about, why we do it and how we can genuinely reform it to continue to do good in the world but without harm to the planet.

What are your personal goals in civil engineering? What do you hope to achieve next?

One thing I really enjoy doing is pushing the boundaries of innovation, for example around transport and mobility but also place-making. I always find myself thinking about how we might do things better, how we can improve the ways the world around us works for all sorts of people. I genuinely love crafting new ways of thinking about things, new ideas, new ways of explaining things, new ways of storytelling. It’s about getting people to see there are ways to shift forward in a positive sense. That's the bit I really love. 

This Women in Engineering Day is all about heroes. Who have you heroes been throughout your career?

My eldest daughter is my heroine because she challenged me some years ago around our collective lack of effort on fast climate action. And she was absolutely right. She inspired me to develop my Shaping Zero theme for my year as ICE President, through which I’m trying to stir up rapid action across the civil engineering community towards a net zero carbon balance and better resilience.

While my own children and others in their generation are yet to explore their futures, the scale and urgency of the challenge means that the greatest climate heroes of all time will emerge ahead of us and not behind.

WSP Rachel Skinner - ICE

Inspired by Rachel Skinner's tremendous passion and success?

WSP believes that for societies to thrive, each of us must all hold ourselves accountable for tomorrow.

This means creating innovative solutions to the challenges the future will bring. This inspires WSP teams to stay curious, act locally, and think internationally.

Sound like you're aligned to this agenda?

Search all the latest job vacancies with WSP and explore where your skills and experience might best fit.


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