Today is International Women in Engineering Day. To mark the occasion, Sarah Pinch, Managing Director of Pinch Point Communications, speaks to Lorna Stimpson, Chief Executive of the Local Authority Building Control.
The Local Authority Building Control (LABC) is the body that brings together building control expertise, skills and resources from around 3,800 professionals in local authorities throughout England and Wales.
As Pinch Point Communications celebrates its 10th anniversary, so too does International Women in Engineering Day (INWED). INWED is the biggest celebration of women engineers in the world. As the only platform of its kind, it plays a vital role in encouraging more young women and girls to take up exciting engineering careers.
Lorna, as CEO of the LABC, can you explain how you got into the role?
I got into building control when I was 16, starting as a trainee Building Control Surveyor. I thought all my Christmases and birthdays had come at once because I was loaded and my friends weren’t!
The people who I went to work for decided it would be a good idea for me to work for a house builder for six months. So I was on site permanently, for an entire winter. I wasn’t put off though – I absolutely loved it and it cemented (!) my desire to be in construction.
It wasn’t until I went back into working with my building control team that you could see the thoughts of those I worked for: “Oh my god this 16-year-old has come back, we didn’t manage to get rid of her.” When I found out I was the quota, the tick in the box from HR of employing a woman, it drove my determination and made me even more committed.
I moved to LABC 15 years ago. I have always been determined and I work hard. I had to work harder as a woman too because I’ve had to prove myself in a different way. To be seen positively, you must be better, stronger, and more competent. Consequently, I moved through the ranks at LABC and got involved in everything – whether it was part of my job description or not.
I have been CEO now for four years – yet it feels like four minutes. I have imposter syndrome every day. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if I didn’t, I would be complacent and that’s not good either.
When you look back at your career, do you feel there were really challenging times, in such a male dominated industry?
I don’t have to look back very far. I think my challenges have been over the last few years. Just as I was becoming deputy CEO, a lot of people were questioning that decision. Those who had not worked closely with me felt I couldn’t be right for the job and thought “surely there must be a man out there better suited to the job”.
I was looking back at the photograph of the winners from the LABC awards last year (above) – and what struck me was the mix of men and women. Do you see diversity improving?
Yes I do. We’ve been really pleased with our recruitment of the new trainee building surveyors. In total there were around 120 recruits, of which 30% are women. But honestly, hand on heart, that is without trying. We didn’t advertise in particular places to attract a diverse group, or interview in a particular way; we employed the best people for the job. It’s exciting to see that the industry is appealing to more women and I don’t think the mentality of “oh women don’t do that” is in young people’s mindset anymore.
This year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day is ‘Make Safety Seen’. I know there is so much you are doing around the safety agenda. Can you talk about why this is important?
The work we are doing at LABC is about competence and validating the competence of building control professionals.
The registration of the profession is happening. As from next April, everyone working in building control will have to be registered with the regulator at whatever level of work they are competent to do.
Competence is so important, whether it’s a homeowner having a kitchen extension, or an architect or developer working on a high-risk project; understanding the competence and abilities of the person responsible for building control is so important.
In the past, there hasn’t been as stringent stewardship of the profession as there perhaps should have been given the competitive environment. Now that the profession is going to be regulated by the Building Safety Regulator, Building Control Surveyors will have more scope to act as regulators, to push back on things they aren’t comfortable with. I am hoping this will see an improvement in wider industry culture and compliance.
When I served on the board of the Health and Safety Executive eight years ago, as a Non-Exec, I had my eyes opened to the variety of roles and opportunities in engineering. Obviously your career has been in construction but there are so many opportunities, aren’t there?
Absolutely. My daughter who is a fire engineer is involved in many women’s engineering groups and has delivered sessions for ‘She Can Engineer’. This included women from diverse engineering disciplines – from working with McLaren, chemical engineering, energy engineering and space systems engineering. It is hugely diverse.
What are LABC’s priorities in the next 12-18 months?
We have recently employed 120 trainee Building Control Surveyors with the help of government funding. These trainees are employed directly by LABC for three years whilst we put them through accredited education and, through their secondments, into local authorities to gain their vital experiential learning. We are creating professionals who have been trained on the job by experienced and competent building control professionals.
Experiential learning is immensely powerful. You can’t learn construction out of a book. It’s impossible. Unless you are seeing it done in practice, it’s difficult to make that leap.
My daughter is nearly nine. If she said to me, “I want to become an engineer,” what would you say?
I’d say flipping heck yes! Do lots of maths and then look for the engineering profession that pays the most, so you can keep your mummy in the manner to which she’s accustomed! But seriously, for me, the best way into an engineering career is the part time apprenticeship/academic type approach. It is practical and you will emerge as someone in your mid-twenties with a rounded-experiential learning education. Practicing it while learning about it is fundamental in engineering.