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Breaking the mould

Sharon kindleysides cropped

The infrastructure challenges of today are very different to those of 20 or 30 years ago. 

Back then, the nation still saw the construction of new roads, water treatment works and power networks as the way to solve the problems of overcrowding and under-capacity, and civil engineering graduates could anticipate a lifetime of designing and constructing these new assets.

But in today’s world, most engineers are being asked to work out how to get more out of the infrastructure we have, rather than building something new.

As a result, traditional engineering roles and skills are no longer enough: this changing infrastructure environment needs people who can collect, interpret and manage data; understand systems thinking; and make our infrastructure smarter. But are those people engineers? Should they be – or does it really not matter what their background is, as long as they are coming up with the answers?

New breed

One example of this new breed is Sharon Kindleysides, UK managing director of global intelligent transportation systems (ITS) specialist Kapsch TrafficCom. Kindleysides describes herself as an engineer, and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (“despite having none of the qualifications to be a member”) and the Institution of Engineering & Technology; but she did not follow a recognised route into the industry and is acutely aware how difficult it can be to break into engineering if you have a non-traditional background.

“It starts with the recruitment process,” she explains. “If your experiences are not reflected in the tick boxes, your CV probably doesn’t even get read. Employers and recruiters need to be more open, and look at the potential of a person rather than just going with tick boxes.”

‘Degree blind’

She advocates “degree blind” recruitment: “You should see what the person’s done – not what degree they’ve got.”

Kindleysides planned to study applied geography at university before – in her words – “messing my A-levels up quite spectacularly”. On the advice of her father, she enrolled to do a BEng in machinery systems engineering at what was then Bristol Polytechnic, now the University of the West of England. “It was a very general course that gave you a bit of everything: electrical and mechanical engineering, management, psychology, finance,” she explains. “It was really aimed at producing all round people who could survive in a business world.”

The course included a year in industry, which Kindleysides spent working for a company that specialised in defence and nuclear engineering projects. At that time, project management software was just starting to come into the industry, and having learnt how to use this during her year out, she did her final year project on expert systems.

You should see what the person’s done – not what degree they’ve got

Sharon Kindleysides, UK managing director of global ITS specialist Kapsch TrafficCom

After graduating she spent a year working on a project run by Newcastle University’s naval architecture department to help the shipbuilding industry adopt new technologies.

“We were looking at their processes and suggesting what they could do to improve them,” explains Kindleysides.

“It could be something as simple as the fact that they were doing their accounts by hand.”

When the project finished Kindleysides stayed in the North East, working for the company that printed the Phone Book as a project engineer, managing its forklift and engineering transportation fleet, and also acting as cover, managing shifts. 

Mucking in and getting on with it

“It involved mucking in and getting on with it – and that’s the sort of environment I want. I was never going to be someone who sat at a desk doing the same thing day in day out,” she says.

Kindleysides left that job for a promotion at the company’s site in York, and had a short stint helping another firm through a process redesign project, before seeing an advert for a “metal bashing company who wanted to set up a company to do subcontract maintenance”.

Austria move

That was followed by a move to Austria, before coming back to the UK to do an MBA at Durham University. She then went to work at Nestlé, before moving to Lotus Engineering.

After three years, Kindleysides was caught up in a wave of redundancies, and she went back to Austria, where a headhunter suggested Kapsch. 

“At that time the company was still very small – about 70 people,” she explains. “There wasn’t really a particular job for me; I just had to muck in and get on with it.

Electronic road tolling

“They were looking at the very early days of electronic road tolling, and I started off working on bids. After a couple of years we were getting some work in UK, so I gave them a proposal to open an office here.”

That was 10 years ago, and the firm has grown hugely in the meantime. Among Kapsch’s UK projects is the implementation of Europe’s most advanced integrated traffic management system as part of a collaborative programme between Highways England and the Dutch national road authority Rijkswaterstaat.

A road now includes sensors and communications equipment; it’s not just a bit of blacktop

Sharon Kindleysides

Kindleysides says the technology involved in ITS, smart infrastructure and autonomous vehicles demonstrates why the traditional roles of engineers are no longer as relevant as they used to be: “A road now includes sensors and communications equipment; it’s not just a bit of blacktop.

“There is a blurring of boundaries, and you can’t cubbyhole things any more. You’ve got roads talking to vehicles, and traffic lights talking to cars.”

Kindleysides says that many of the companies developing transport solutions would not consider themselves engineering companies, and cites the example of the “waze” app, which allows drivers to share real-time traffic and road information: “These people don’t think they’re in transport sector – they just think they’re doing something people need.

New generation

“Older engineers don’t get the point that we don’t have cubbyholes any more. Younger people are not so career-driven, and they don’t accept it if someone says ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’, or ‘let’s look in the rulebook’. They will just do something because ‘this makes sense’.

“When we start looking at autonomous vehicles, we will have to have changes in the rulebook, and we have got to stop to having these divisions between civil engineering, mechanical engineering, architecture etcetera.”

She adds: “We need more people who haven’t just got maths and physics – we need people who can understand the human side, and they are as likely to be psychologists or anthropologists.”

Kindleysides has a neat way of summing up why we should be open-minded about the skills we need to solve society’s problems. “The job I did when I first graduated doesn’t exist any more,” she says. “And the job I do now didn’t exist when I graduated.”

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