Frances Hamilton

Civil Engineering is changing. Projects across the board involve a wider range of specialists than they once did. So how does a non-engineer find life in an engineering company like Pell Frischmann? Frances Hamilton, an environmental scientist in Pell Frischmann’s Yorkshire office, notes that there can be challenges.

“I didn’t know what I wanted my career to be when I started my Natural Sciences degree. I wouldn’t call myself a civil engineer as such, but I did some environmental consultancy work experience within an engineering firm, so I looked to start my career in a multidisciplinary company that had graduate places in flooding and environment.”

Despite talk of skills shortages, that company wasn’t easy to find as a scientist.

“I applied to a lot of companies, but most required a degree in engineering or a more applicable master’s degree, and mine was in science. Fortunately, after a lot of applications, I found Pell Frischmann whose flood team was keen to take me on as a graduate.”

Pell Frischmann’s flood experts have been very busy lately, particularly in Yorkshire where so many parts of the region flooded over the winter.

“There are a lot of surveys needed by many companies and homeowners who are putting their world back together. I’ve also written a strategic environmental assessment for North Lincolnshire Council, and we have been working with other councils too. Some projects we work on are not what I thought I’d be doing in environmental science but I have learned a lot about focusing on client needs and how a project is managed practically, which is very different to university education.”

Not that life was simple when Frances first started.

“Engineering is a male dominated environment, but I wouldn’t say that was the biggest cultural issue for me. The bigger challenge at first was that it is engineer dominated, and I was a scientist.  So many of my colleagues assumed I could use CAD, which I had never come across before. People assumed I knew a range of engineering principles and designs that I had never been taught. Fortunately, my colleagues were very patient with me.

 “I am the only woman of my age in the office, and that could make the social side of working difficult. I personally make a big effort to fit into the workplace dynamic, and I definitely try not to be seen as ‘the woman’ in the team. But if there were more women in engineering anyway, I probably wouldn’t personally feel I need to defy expectations. So it is good that companies like Pell Frischmann are signing up to the WISE commitments to help make that happen.”

Keeping people like Frances in engineering means supporting their aspirations, but that has proven more complicated than she hoped.

“My boss and I looked at achieving Chartered status through the ICE. Many of my colleagues are chartered members but it quickly became apparent I wouldn’t be. The requirement for an accredited degree was the problem. To become accredited I would have to study a 4-year engineering degree, and that meant years of study at something that wasn’t my passion or my career. After all, there was a reason I studied natural science in the first place.

“Fortunately for me, Pell Frischmann proved more willing to adapt. They have been really good about sponsoring my Master’s Degree in Hydrology and Climate Change instead. This will enable me to become chartered through CIWEM – the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. Being adaptable like that is really important and I think that is something civil engineering more widely might need to improve at.”

So what does the future hold for an environmental scientist in engineering?

“The environment is changing and what I hope to do is be involved in developing innovative ways of managing and mitigating floods. My future, and that of others like me, could become more focused on natural approaches such as river restoration and bioengineering. That could be within specialist firms focused solely on that sort of work, but it could be within a civil engineering company like Pell Frischmann, if civil engineering embraces a wider pool of talent as its own.”