ENGINEERS WEEK Germaine Sheehan
05 Mar 2021
Cathal O Donnell, Commercial Director with Brightwater is in conversation with Germaine Sheehan, Senior Civil Engineer with Egis Road and Tunnel Operations.
COD: Germaine, nice to see you again. I thought it would be worth having a chat, going through a couple of things from your perspective in regard to your career, where you’ve been etc because it’s been very impressive so far. Could you introduce yourself?
GS: My name is Germaine Sheehan. I graduated as a civil engineer in 2008 so I’ve been a qualified engineer for the last 12 years. I’m from Galway and I’ve spent most of my career in Australia to date. I’ve recently moved home from Australia to Dublin last August (August 2020)
COD: When you were leaving secondary school, why was engineering on your radar? What was the reason behind selecting engineering to go forward?
GS: So in school, my strong subjects were maths, I loved maths, physics, I did very well in physics and technical drawing. I suppose I was the only girl in my technical drawing class back then, that was a while ago now so hopefully there are more girls in technical drawing now. My career guidance teacher said “look, you should be an engineer”. They wanted to get more girls into engineering and it sounded great to me. I could imagine myself in New York city, designing skyscrapers and all of that. That’s what I thought. Also, my father is an engineer, but in a different field. I just kind of thought it was a job so rather than just studying something, I would get a profession out of it.
COD: Was there any specific reason why you selected civil engineering as opposed to mechanical, electrical or quantity surveying or architecture or anything related to the built environment?
GS: To be honest, it was the only one I was exposed to in school, it was the only one put forward to me. And architecture did interest me as well, I was going to go for that, I suppose I was just worried about the points (to get into college). As I said, I did envisage myself designing buildings, exciting looking buildings and things like that.
COD: And what do you feel you’ve gained from that selection so far? How have you found it? Is civil engineering turned out to what you thought or is it different?
GS: I suppose it’s entirely different. When I was in school, I was very academic. I didn’t grow up on a building site, I’ve no relatives who are builders or anything like that. I had no knowledge of the built environment so I assumed that I’d be sitting in an office designing away. When I first graduated, I actually did end up in a job in a design office. It wasn’t for me. I found it too desk orientated, I suppose. I was used to being outdoors a little bit. When I relocated to Australia, I got the opportunity to work in construction, on big building sites. As a child, I could never put myself in that position. Of course, on my first job, I was extremely intimidated by it and by everyone but luckily I had a great team of colleagues. They saw I was this green engineer who didn’t know what was going around me. They supported me and taught me everything and to be honest, I flourished in that environment and to this day, I still look for those kind of jobs, I look for exciting big structures being built. Being on the coal face, it’s not dirty. For engineers, you might think building sites are cold and dirty but in our position, you’re there to do inspections or you’re there to check up on things. You’re not there to build and you’re not there to get your hands dirty really. You kind of get the best of both worlds there.
COD: Was the idea of being an engineer in a different country the daunting part of it or was it starting a career in engineering or was it a combination of both? How did that impact on you?
GS: When I moved to Australia, it was daunting being in a new country. But when you go and look for construction jobs, you’ll find that most of the people in those jobs are actually Irish in Australia. So being in a different country wasn’t intimidating in that respect because I was surrounded by Irish people from all parts of Ireland which was great camaraderie for us. But it was kind of intimidating just walking onto a construction site for the first time. You being the person that has to inspect someone’s work, to tell them if it’s right or wrong, the people you’re speaking to have been in the trade for 20 years and I suppose it’s intimidating for any young professional to start a new job but even more so when you’re out of your comfort zone a little bit.
COD: Do you think that having an engineering degree aided you when you went out to Australia or international travel in general? Do engineering degrees travel well globally? Can people use them as avenues to explore the world?
GS: Yes, definitely. When I graduated, it was actually the time of the crash, the financial crisis and as we all know, construction disappeared in Ireland. So many of us, all of us I suppose, were forced to go overseas in that time and as an engineer, we were so lucky as I know of many other professionals whose degrees didn’t translate overseas, doctors, accountants, different things like that (they would have to get another qualification or sit other exams to practice overseas) but engineers from Irish and British universities are very well thought of in Australia, more so than Australians from Australian universities. We tend to learn the things they need over there but also the fact that we’re very eager to show that we’re good at our jobs. We were very hard working over there. The engineering degree was like a passport to work over there in Australia pretty much. It would be the same in any country in the world, I had opportunities to work in Africa, I could have worked in Asia. The language isn’t an issue because in our profession, it’s mostly done through English. I could have worked in Vietnam, there were many places but I stayed in Australia for the majority of the time.
COD: Did you find that the majority of your class went overseas? Was that the avenue to experience at the time?
GS. Yes, at the time, I would say about 10% of my class stayed in Ireland because they hadn’t lost their jobs and they managed to keep their jobs during that period. But yes, the rest of us went overseas, there are people in America, New Zealand, some of them are still there today. Many of us, including myself now, with the experience we gained overseas, we could come home to the environment that we’re in now where construction is booming and there are so many exciting jobs happening in Ireland. We could bring that experience we learned overseas and secure jobs here as well.
COD: Now that you’re back in lovely Dublin, how is that journey for you? Obviously you came back during the pandemic or certainly when you were thinking about coming back, how was that journey at the time? How were your experiences with that?
GS: I’ve been planning to come home for a few years and 2020 was the year that I had earmarked. Obviously unfortunately, it coincided with the pandemic. I suppose, my main fear in coming home was being unable to secure a job especially in a pandemic. I actually ended up securing a job from Australia and I’ve heard of many people in the same boat. They can get a job from overseas before they leave. Even on the ground, now that I’m here, I hear that there are many opportunities in the country. The pandemic didn’t impact me too much to be honest with you. I had to jump through a few more hoops to get home from Australia as they’re very strict about it over there. You had to prove that you weren’t going to come back pretty much. So for me, it was easy enough. It is quite daunting having spent 10 years of your life in another country to come home, that in itself is daunting whether it’s a pandemic or not. I don’t know if I’ve been lucky or what but it’s been a very good experience overall.
COD: And do you have friends that are still in Australia that are thinking about coming home? Do you think that the pandemic has caused an increase in people thinking about deciding to come back to Ireland?
GS: It’s definitely put a lot of pressure on people. I have a brother in Australia and a brother in New Zealand. I have many friends, Irish friends still in Australia and some who have also come home this year. The pandemic has put a lot of pressure because before people would justify it by saying “It’s only a flight at the end of the day” whereas now you can’t come home so it’s putting a lot of stress on people. I’m quite worried about people over there but hopefully now we’ll get out of it in a few months and people can come home more freely. I do believe people are definitely choosing to come home, they can see the lifestyle in Ireland is good and if you live in Dublin, the weather’s not too bad, (compared to Galway).
COD: Were there any specific drivers for you? I know personally when I was coming home from Australia, there were a couple of family issues and I felt that I had kind of done my time and gained that experience. Were there any drivers you found that started that thought process?
GS: I suppose when I went to Australia, it was solely because of the downturn in 2008. I didn’t go to Australia wanting to stay in a foreign country at the other side of the world. I love living in Ireland, I never wanted to leave but after 10 years , the years go by quite quickly, you gain great experience and it’s all very exciting. You don’t want to cut it short and give up that great experience and obviously the money over there is amazing. When it came to 10 years, I said enough is enough, if I’m going home, I should go home while I’m young and not wait til I’m old to go home. That’s kind of the driver.
COD: You’re back, now in Dublin, what are you working at now? What’s the role you have now in Ireland? What does that involve?
GS: So I secured a role with Egis who manage the Dublin tunnel and they also manage the Jack Lynch tunnel in Cork. My roles is Senior Civil Engineer so I’m on the maintenance side of the project. Obviously these tunnels have already been built, 15 years ago in Cork and 10 years ago in Dublin so there are defects arising. There are renewals we need to work on, there are systems in the tunnels that are civil, obviously the tunnel itself, the structure and all of that. As a civil engineer, I review the maintenance that’s been completed on the structures and look to see where we can improve, to see what renewals we can do on the structures to make them more efficient going forward. So it’s actually completely different. In Australia, I was involved in the construction of tunnels and now in Ireland, I’m looking at the tunnels but from a built perspective which is interesting. I hadn’t worked in maintenance before so it’s a new string to my bow.
COD: DO you think the experience you gained in Australia was advantageous to getting this job or actually conducting this job as well?
GS: Yes definitely. Being involved in the construction of a tunnel, you understand the general design, how it functions, the ins and outs of the tunnel and also in engineering and in construction, you’re managing projects, you’re managing people. That can all be utilised in any job. Equally in construction, it’s all about systems and processes and developing the right systems so that things don’t get missed and we can run a nice efficient job. Everything I learned in Australia translates to what I’m doing in Ireland and my job in Ireland.
COD: What effect has the lockdown had on your role or your sector?
Just in regard to the shutdowns that we’ve had – has that affected the role that you have at the moment or affected the project that you’re on. This is obviously the second one that we’re on and has affected many businesses. What has it done from an engineer’s perspective on that programme?
GS: I suppose in that respect I’m very lucky because the structures are essential infrastructure in Ireland. They can’t shut down, the Dublin Port Tunnel can’t shut down, the Jack Lynch tunnel can’t shut down so the work that we do to maintain it is essential work. We can’t take a break. There are some things like big projects that we can put on hold right now but the general maintenance of the tunnel needs to be done. People are still using it. How it’s affected me and my colleagues, we’re still working which is great but we’re working from home 90% of the time. I’m working from my desk at home with my new puppy. I go into site for inspections, mostly during night. They close the tunnel at night to do the works and I’ll drive in and do inspections for that. In those circumstances, you’re not meeting people so it’s pretty safe.
COD: Is not being onsite out of the norm for engineers? Did you ever envisage the idea of not being onsite as an engineer? I’m sure that would have been a very different concept for a lot of engineering companies or engineers themselves?
GS: Since I’ve been involved in construction and worked on site, I suppose I knew that as you progressed through engineering, you’re going to spend less time on site because it’s the younger engineers that carry out most of the site works. Then the thing about engineering, you can start on site but there are so many options, there’s procurement, there’s an array of options, you won’t just go straight down the line and keep doing the same thing forever and ever. There are so many places to deviate to, many of them are at a desk or they could be on the road. It’s called civil engineering but no two civil engineers do the same thing. There is so much choice out there so if you want to have a certain set up in your life, after a certain number of years, you can start steering yourself in that direction and picking the jobs that have that set up. At the moment, I’m not onsite. Maybe in the future I will be onsite again but it’s kind of nearly my choice at this stage depending on what jobs I go for.
COD: Do you miss being onsite?
GS: Yes, 100% yes.
COD: Why do you miss it?
GS: I find often when you’re at the desk, I like people, I like working with people. Onsite you meet people from all different walks of life, tradespeople, senior engineers, real academics, and it’s great, just the variety you have onsite and you get to see the structure being built right in front of you. You don’t have to be looking through drawings the whole time. There’s always something happening onsite, there’s always a problem that you need to make a decision to fix. So there’s always a challenge. You can’t say “hang on 10 minutes to look at that” you have to get stuck in there and then. I suppose I miss the excitement of it and I miss the people on it as well.
COD: Historically engineering has been a male dominated industry. From a STEM perspective, when you were moving from secondary school to university, did you feel that the idea of becoming an engineer was an option or do you think it was promoted to you well? How did that work for you? Do you think engineering was promoted in a good way to you as a career?
GS: I suppose I left school nearly 15 years ago so I would hope since then that we’ve only advanced. Back when I left school, it was all about girl power, Spice Girls and so on, I thought I could take on anything. I never dreamed of anything preventing me from doing anything. I do remember back to that time and becoming an engineer, if someone tells you “girls don’t do that” I would have said, “yes they do” just to prove them wrong. In university, a fifth of our class were girls. That was probably a low percentage but when you’ve got 20 girls in your class, you don’t feel out of place at all. It wasn’t the case that I was the only girl out of a hundred, there were 20 of us. When I went into the workplace first, it was a design office and I’d say nearly 40% of the workforce was female, they could be scientists or engineers. There were lots of female engineers around me when I started.
Now in Australia, it was another story. I often got “What, you’re an engineer? How are you an engineer? Why do you want to be an engineer?” just from people on site and different things like that. I was kind of amused by it and confused because I hadn’t had that reaction in Ireland. I haven’t seen much advancement over the years but I hope we’re moving forward. To be honest, I think it’s an amazing career for a woman, there’s nothing masculine about it. It’s a great challenge, you’re using your brain, you’re figuring things out, all the things that women are great at. And men! I would never classify it as (obviously construction sites are quite masculine) but if you’re strong and you’re able to look after yourself, it’s a great career. Obviously, it’s taken me around the world. It’s allowed me to work in remote places, allowed me to see places I never thought I’d see and allow me to work on some amazing big projects and infrastructure that is going to be in countries for years and years and years. It’s good!
COD: Do you think companies are doing enough to promote diversity and inclusion? A lot of people are documenting it now at the moment. Are you seeing it from your colleagues or friends? What have you seen so far?
GS: In Australia I worked for a very large company that had targets to employ diversity, be it people of colour, be it women, whichever. It was talked about a lot. I think it’s a bit of a balance. We need to get women becoming engineers so that they can be hired. We need to get women becoming scientists, becoming these roles. Maybe it’s naïve but I don’t feel that there is too many people who don’t want to hire women. In fact I’d say it’s nearly the opposite. I would say most women I’ve worked with have been great engineers. We’re not letting the side down. I think we just need to get women graduating and becoming these roles so that they can be hired. I do think that companies are more than willing to hire them.
COD; Do you think that promotion starts at the secondary level? Where do you think that promotion starts? There are a lot of people who might not think that engineering is an opportunity for them.
GS: Yes, it’s sad because I suppose that one thing that women have a disadvantage with in these types of industries is networking. The industry is male dominated, it will continue to be male dominated because men talk to men. Men tell other men how great the job is, how great the salaries are and how great the career possibilities are. Women are not really exposed to it very much. It shouldn’t be called a male career. It needs to be exposed to young people earlier and more and made to look like a very good career choice for women. If you talk to a 13 year old and tell them it’s a very stable job, it can take you across the world, you can earn amazing money from it, there’s really no downsides. I don’t think that whether it’s men or women, I don’t think that students are being sold it properly.
COD: What would you recommend to someone considering a career in engineering? From your experiences so far through your career, what would you recommend to people who are thinking about getting into engineering, either going down the degree route or the trade route? Is it something with your years of experience, that you’d say it’s a good stable career going forward?
GS: I would think it’s a very good career. If you’re thinking about going down this route, it would be great to get some practical experience or some exposure. If you do have a relative who works in the industry or a neighbour or someone like that, you could get some experience in that industry, be it sales or trades or anything like that. Talk to your career guidance teacher about what options they can offer for you to have a look. Often people go to university, they pick a degree that sounds nice, they don’t actually know what the job entails. While I’m saying that engineering is a great job, stable, good money etc, obviously it’s not going to be for everyone. To go in and investigate it a little bit but practically, try and get some work experience in.
COD: What advice would you give to engineering graduates? Just from maybe when you graduated to what you see in the industry now and where you are in your career, how do you think engineers are going to differ in the future, particularly when we’ve got things like a global pandemic and things like that? Is there any way engineers can differentiate themselves when they do graduate or when they are embarking on this type of career?
GS: I think that young graduates coming out of university and looking for work should try and develop good communication skills. Not matter how much knowledge you have, you need to be able to sell yourself, you need to be confident. You need to be able to speak to the different people that you’ll be working with. I think that would be the main advice to young graduates coming out. It’s not all about the knowledge you gained in university, you need to have a lot of confidence to back yourself and just go for it.
COD: Is working in engineering very difficult? One of the preconceptions about engineering is that it’s very difficult. I’m sure it is difficult in order to get qualified but are there any recommendations you would give to people there? Is it the harder you work, the more naturally it comes to you or do you gain experience from listening to other people? How do you bridge that gap between perception of difficulty and execution?
GS: I suppose university is quite difficult, to pass all the exams and everything. Once you go into the working world, there are two streams; design engineers and project engineers. Design engineers will use and follow designs that have already been specified so I haven’t really done much design engineering myself. Project engineering, I wouldn’t say it’s difficult academically. It’s difficult because you’re dealing with difficult situations all the time. It is technical because you need to be able to review drawings and review what’s going on onsite. I’d say a lot of the success in being a great engineer is really in your attitude or demeanour or whether you’re willing to take up a challenge or you’re willing to make decisions on the spot and different things like that. It wouldn’t be all what you’ve learned in college.
COD: It’s about onsite learning?
GS: Yes, it’s about reading the situation when you’re onsite and I suppose plain and simple logic.
COD: One of the things I know from a couple of engineering friends is that it’s about the ability to adapt.
GS: Yes, definitely.
COD: It’s a fair way to describe it And it’s about the ability to make decisions. I know from my perspective (as an engineering recruiter), it’s always sounded like a really exciting career. I know friends of mine now who have said before if they were looking at engineering for their children that are starting to come through now, it’s definitely something that’s back on the radar. You mentioned 2010. I remember there were very few (engineering) graduates coming out after those years because it wasn’t really a career that had a massive market for after that particular downturn. I think it’s going to be interesting over the next couple of years. Germaine, thank you very much for your time, we really appreciate your insights into that and we look forward to speaking with you again.
Cathal placed Germaine into her role as Senior Civil Engineer with Egis Road and Tunnel Operations in the summer of 2020. The interview process was conducted remotely while Germaine was still in Australia. If you would like advice on moving or returning to Ireland as an engineer, please contact Cathal on [email protected]