Faye Banks

Open University (OU) engineering student, Faye Banks, left school at 16 and started her career path in low skilled manual work in a meatpacking factory.

After growing frustrated about her limited career opportunities, she went back to college, achieved straight As and then went on to study for a BSc and an MSc in Engineering with the OU.

Studying with the OU has helped Faye to completely transform her life, leading to her securing a top role as the Director of Energy for one of the UK’s leading engineering companies, Costain.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up in Barnsley and came from a family of four girls. We had a bit of a turbulent childhood and I was taken into care aged nine. It’s safe to say that I had a lot of difficulties growing up. I left school at 16 as I’d never engaged with the education system and thought it was completely flawed.

The reality hit me when I left school and realised that there were no opportunities available to me, I had no formal qualifications and the jobs that I was applying for were really low skilled. I ended up getting a job in a manufacturing plant, packing meat into plastic containers. This meant having to work repetitive 12-hour days and night shifts – it was incredibly boring, and I knew then that I wanted to do something different. However, the harsh reality was that I had no qualifications. I then started looking for new highly skilled jobs, although at the time, I knew I was very far away from being able to apply for them.

I was bored and frustrated with my limited career options, so I decided to go back to college to study for my GCSEs – I managed to achieve 10 grade A’s. After spotting an ad in the local newspaper, I registered with The Open University (OU) to study for a BSc in Engineering. I absolutely loved the course and I’ve been studying with the OU ever since, for over 17 years now. I’ve achieved an MBA, MSc, MEng, and I am now currently studying for my PhD.

I’ve completely transformed my life and I now work for Costain, which is one of the UK’s largest engineering companies. As a result of my studies, I was successful in climbing the career ladder to become director of their energy department for electrical generation, transmission and distribution.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

For me I’d never really given much thought to my career when I was at school. I had my lightbulb moment about six months into my job at the meat packing plant after we’d had a major operational failure and were under pressure from one of our clients to supply the product that we were manufacturing. There was nothing that I could have done to repair the failure and the only people that could were the engineers.

At that moment, I realised just how important and significant the roles, skills and capabilities of engineers were – and that I had to go back to school and get some qualifications to be able to do a job like this.

The main issue for me was that I couldn’t give up work to go back to college to study full-time, so I went to night classes to retake my GCSEs over the course of the year. The following year, I managed to secure 10 GCSEs at grade A.

I then approached one of the engineering managers at the manufacturing plant to see if they had any trainee or apprenticeship roles available. Fortunately, I got my qualifications in July and there were openings for apprentices to start in September. I was successful in my application, secured a role and have never looked back. It was definitely a life-changing point in my career!

Thanks to studying with the OU, I’ve been able to secure my dream role in the industry as the Director of Energy at one of the UK’s leading energy companies, Costain.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

When I was younger, and I was taken into care, survival was my number one priority and education was quite low down on my list – I never thought I’d have a career.

Then, when I knew that I wanted to go to university later on in life and obtain a degree so that I could become a chartered engineer, there was the realisation that I couldn’t stop earning as I still had a family to support. If I’d pursued the traditional route, I would have lost income and that just wasn’t an option for me.

It was also difficult to even consider part-time learning at a brick university. I could never guarantee that I would be able to go to the classes as my schedule would often change at work and I was also raising a family. That’s when I started to look into distance learning providers and I knew, after doing some research, that the OU was the perfect match for me.

When I think about the low skilled roles that I’d had previous to becoming an engineer and how monotonous and unchallenging they were, these never really inspired me. So, when I then fast forward to what I’ve achieved over the last twenty something years and I look at the impact on society of the projects that I’ve worked on, I’m extremely proud.  I’ve worked for National Grid and I was part of a number of major projects on their electrical transmission upgrades that impacted many people’s lives.

It can also be quite challenging working in such a male-dominated environment. I hope that I am paving the future path for more women to enter the field. I think it’s really important to start challenging the ancient stereotypes that surround the engineering profession and shed light on what it is really like to work in the industry. I’ve often been mistaken for a PA or a secretary in client meetings, so it’s always quite amusing once the meeting starts and people realise that I’m the lead consultant.

 How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I currently mentor a number of females in the engineering industry. I believe that investing in business mentoring is a useful and cost-effective way to develop top emerging talents. It also helps to keep your most knowledgeable and experienced performers engaged and energised.

As well as the transferral of critical business knowledge and skills, mentoring helps to develop a pipeline of future leaders who understand the skills and attitudes required to succeed within an organisation.

What do you want to see happen within the next five years when it comes to diversity?

Unfortunately, the engineering industry remains one of the least diverse sectors. A recent consumer poll* from The Open University revealed that women are less aware of the career paths on offer within engineering, with 15 per cent stating they are unsure what careers are available, compared to just 1 in 10 (11%) men. When asked, more than one in three women (34 per cent) agreed barriers need to be broken down in the workplace, and that occupations such as engineering should include more women.

I worry that women, in particular, are being discouraged from seeking and pursuing careers in engineering, starving the profession of fresh perspectives that represent one of the most potent drivers of innovation. Much of the diversity deficit can be traced back to early years of schooling, as children grow up with outdated notions of roles they are expected to fulfil in adulthood, and it’s not only women. Overall diversity remains a huge problem when you consider the participation figures amongst minority ethnic groups and disabled people too.

I hope that the government, the education system and industry leaders will encourage more women and minority groups to join the sector. At Costain, over 50% of our graduate intake this year was female – which is great to see – but there is still more to be done!

If you could change one thing for women in the engineering, what would it be?

I would love to inspire more women to consider the engineering industry as a rewarding and lucrative career opportunity. I really enjoy working in a male-dominated environment and get the respect for the qualifications and experiences I have achieved over my 22 plus years in the industry. There is also a misconception that engineering is a dirty job, but this view is so far away from the truth. I did get my hands dirty when I was an apprentice, but I spend most of my time nowadays getting involved in strategic work and would love to help to dispel this myth, too.

 How would you encourage more women and girls into a career in STEM?

Firstly, I think more needs to be done from a government perspective to debunk the myths surrounding the engineering perception in schools, in order to demonstrate the varied roles within it and to encourage more women to consider it as a potential profession in the future.

Secondly, the OU has changed my life for the better and I’m looking forward to sharing my story with others. I hope to show people from all walks of life that it’s never too late to pursue their career aspirations and encourage more women to study STEM subjects in the future!

 What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Outside of work and my studies I’ve won 15 national engineering awards, which I never ever thought I would do. I was the top engineering student in 2004, won the UK Young Engineer Award, and the Higher Education National Education Gold Award because of the grades I secured – I even got to go to the Houses of Parliament for the ceremony! Things have even progressed since then. I won the Yorkshire Women of Achievement Business Award in 2010 and I’ve since gone on to be recognised in the First Women Awards for Women in Science and Engineering. It definitely hasn’t been easy, but what the OU has taught me has been absolutely paramount to the development and growth of my career. If I’d never got the qualifications, I would’ve never had the opportunities that I have enjoyed, and I wouldn’t have been able to even go to an interview and that’s a fact.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My next goal is to achieve my PhD in Business Administration. Learning has become a way of life for me and I think life-long learning is the key to success in the current climate, and particularly in engineering, given all of the rapid technological advancements within the sector.

I really want to become an ambassador for women in engineering and highlight to people that it doesn’t matter what your background is, as long as you want to learn you can achieve anything with the OU.

*Polling of 2,006 UK adults conducted by Opinion Matters between 22nd -23rd October 2018