Joining the Utilities Sector Later Than Most – Mid-Way Through Your Career
From the age of 19 to 44 I worked for a global design and engineering consultancy in a department of Building Surveyors, Architects, M&E and PH Engineers, and to be perfectly honest, had the multiple challenges of the late 2010s/early 2020’s not happened, I’d probably still be there! I had worked with many of the same people for 20+ years, with colleagues who had become friends who had become family – people who had come to my wedding and held my children as babies and celebrated my 21st, 30th and 40th birthdays with me. I understood the terminology and jargon, the processes, the ‘why’ – I’d seen the evolutions and knew the journey – and knew our clients and our supply chain. And then suddenly life and Covid-19 happened, and in 2020 after 25 years with a single employer, like many others I found myself in the job market.
Under-estimating my potential, my transferable skills and my general employability, and a bit emotionally broken from redundancy, I applied for jobs randomly, and had the massive good fortune to be offered a job at a very non-traditional utilities consultancy with a group of SMEs working in both the gas and water sectors. The people were lovely, the job was interesting, my new employer completely aligned to my ethics and world view, the trust that was put in me was, to put it mildly, a shock – but the fear of the challenge and potential failure, and the blow still impacting my confidence, was real.
Suddenly I was completely out of my depth, for the first time in decades. My new colleagues and customers spoke in acronyms I had never heard of and couldn’t work out, about concepts I was totally unfamiliar with but seemed so obvious to them – and like that game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ everybody seemed to know everybody, or at least know someone who did! I’d look up the people I was meeting on LinkedIn, and everybody had followed similar trajectories, working for the same employers, starting off on the tools or at university, and then working their way up the ladder, dividing their time between contractors and water companies. People didn’t seem to leave the industry. Did people really join when they were on the other side of 40? I wondered how I was ever going to break into this exclusive world, and if my previous experience of camaraderie was possible to find with a new employer.
The answer of course, is yes – within a month the team at Skewb was my family, and the alien language of water and leakage was becoming a little easier to comprehend. I’ll never be a data analyst or a network engineer or understand all the intricacies of regulatory compliance or the water balance – but I can find someone that does and will be happy to explain. My experience of people in the water and gas industries is that they love what they do, and they are passionate about it – they are not precious about their knowledge, and they love to teach and learn and discuss and debate. No question is silly, and there is no eye rolling, even if you’ve asked it a dozen times before.
One of the joys of joining the Utilities sector has been having my eyes opened to the everyday things that often go unseen or unremarked on, at least until something unfortunately goes wrong and the press jump on it. How much thought do the general public give to water before it comes out of our tap, or the gas that we cook on, or to the electricity charging their phones, or what happens after the cistern refills following a toilet flush. Do they value resources as much as they should? Who really sees the huge workforce who spend their careers ensuring that what comes out of the tap is safe to drink. Do we really understand what is going on or what has led up to that moment when there are temporary traffic lights on a length of dug up road, with technicians and engineers up to their waist in a hole?
If you are passionate about sustainability, and social and environmental impact, a role in the utilities industry is well worth looking at. The UKs infrastructure may be aging, and much of it was designed for a considerably smaller population that then one is it now dealing with. Play a role in what happens over the next few decades to ensure that our critical services are maintained and improved and made sustainable. And prepare to be amazed at the innovation that is going on behind the scenes – we are all part of the digital and AI revolution, and cutting-edge technology is being refined constantly within this industry. Newcomers bring the benefit of a fresh set of eyes and perspectives – and of course diversity of thought.
The other part of this subject is education and legacy. The utilities industry knows its challenges – issues around diversity and inclusion, issues around skills shortages, perception in the media, as well as all the other trials and tribulations that the 2020’s have shown us. The resolutions to the problems aren’t all understood, or in place yet, but the opportunity to be part of the solution is. If you get the chance to join the utilities industry at any stage in your career, I would thoroughly recommend it. Let’s promote the Utilities sector in schools and to our children. And if the chance comes partway through your career or in midlife, or on a return to the workforce from parenting or as a caregiver, don’t hesitate to grasp it with both hands.
Gill Edwards, WUN Advocate.