We speak to HR Business Partner Michelle Powell, in advance of International Women in Engineering Day on the 23rd of June. Overseeing Kirby’s apprenticeship and outreach programmes, she champions women in engineering in schools and colleges across Ireland.
Kirby has worked in partnership with Business in the Community Ireland (BITCI) for 10 years, delivering outreach programmes at Coláiste Chiaráin in Co. Limerick and Galway Community College. It’s something that Michelle has evolved and developed with the organisation. The students have access to Kirby experts, with seven sessions across the year covering: communications, active listening, estimating, interview skills and advice on subject selection.
“It’s important to hold these sessions at the age we do. At 13 and 14 years old. If we wait until college, these young people would have already selected their subjects. We know that there is a lack of representation from certain groups in STEM subjects. This programme was developed and is evolving in response. We gauge at the beginning of the session how many students would consider careers in engineering, and then again at the end of the series. There is a huge change in the numbers of young girls putting their hands up.
“For the sessions I bring mostly female colleagues with me. It’s important that the young girls in the class can see themselves represented across the spectrum of careers in engineering, from planning, BIM/Digital Construction, estimating, and the trades on site.”
When we talk about Kirby joiners from the programme, Michelle explains, “we are starting to see people apply for roles, having been through the programme eight years ago. It’s a long game. I think it will be another two years until we see a marked impact. For Kirby to have supported a programme like this for as long as we have, shows the vision we have as a company. It’s about the industry as a whole, not just a pipeline for our own future talent. We know that to have a diverse future for engineering we need to invest time now and invest resources in early education.”
Figures from the Higher Education Authority (2022) show 23 per cent of the engineering graduates in Ireland are female but go on to represent just 12 per cent of the profession.
“There is a huge drop off after college. It’s something myself and our Engineering Manager Amy Lane, who leads Kirby’s electrical engineering graduate programme, are looking at in great detail. With our outreach programme, bursary scheme for female engineers, and our apprenticeship and graduate schemes, we are taking a holistic approach, while working with our senior leaders on mentorship and succession planning to grow and develop our internal talent. Kirby has always had a legacy mindset, and we know that diversity will ensure the future of our organisation.”
With 200 apprentices, Michelle’s role is a busy one, she overseas their placements and learning schedules, across their four-year programmes. It’s a job that she loves, “I am supporting the future leaders of our business. I get to see them thrive, and having done this role for the last eight years, I have seen people promoted, move to different departments, and even leave and return,” she explains.
Her door is always open and as she says, “I tell all the students that I meet that they can ring me if they want to apply for a job, or one of our talent programmes.
“Many of our board members came through Kirby as apprentices or engineers, so there is a huge amount of internal support for the young generation who come to us to start their careers,” she adds.
Linda Hall, Regional Coordinator, Business in the Community Ireland, says: “A schools/business partnership’s success depends very much on the individuals involved. Kirby has been participating in the World of Work programme for a number of years with Coláiste Chiaráin Croom. Michelle Powell, as Kirby’s lead, brings her energy, enthusiasm and fully engages with the participating students, sharing her experience and that of the relevant colleagues in the various disciplines. She delivers the various sessions with ease which students relate can to and they gain a lot of knowledge and confidence during the programme as a result of her commitment.”
The vision and purpose of Business in the Community Ireland is to inspire and enable businesses to contribute to a sustainable, low-carbon economy and a more inclusive society where everyone thrives.
“Delivering the World of Work programme to second year students gives them a glimpse of future work opportunities and how the workplace environment is constantly evolving, particularly since the pandemic. Through the various sessions the students are learning about the importance of soft skills and are gaining confidence in practicing these skills through the wrap-up sessions,” Linda Hall adds.
To find out more about careers at Kirby go to https://careers.kirbygroup.com/.