Catriona Schmolke FREng is the Senior Global Vice President, Operational Centres of Excellence, Jacobs.
“Engineering needs to be seen as a career that leads to making a difference and enables individuals to solve the challenges that the human race and the planet face. It isn’t just about engines, physics and maths, it's also about creativity, conservation and beauty. ”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
My current role is all about leadership and inspiring others. It’s important to lead by example and have the people that you are influencing do what they need to do because they want to. I have spent over 30 years as a professional engineer in industry and working with people is what it is all about. I have a very varied global remit in an organisation of 77,000 engineers in 51 countries. I am not an expert in everything, but I have a curious nature and I love learning about what others do. I enjoy joining the dots between different engineering and scientific disciplines and seeing the opportunity for overlap where others may not. The challenge and creativity of whatever it is we are trying to solve motivates me. I enjoy finding problems as there is a solution out there.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
Engineering chose me! I was uncertain about what to do with my maths, physics and chemistry A-levels, and knew that I enjoyed geography as well. I did two degrees – one was in applied geology, which gave me an insight to lots of engineering disciplines. I focused on mining engineering. My second degree was in hydro geochemistry as I was interested in mine water pollution. My degrees were accredited by the Engineering Council, so I could apply to be a chartered engineer. I didn’t know that at 17, but I trusted my instinct and followed what I was interested in, which started me on the path to becoming a professional engineer.
Please describe your first job.
My first job was interpreting geological data and designing the open-cut faces for an open-cast coal mine. Ironically, one of my roles today is chief sustainability officer at Jacobs and I have a totally different perspective on fossil fuels now.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
I’m a people person and I like working with different people who bring diverse thinking to any problem we are trying to solve. I really enjoy learning about other people’s areas of expertise. My profession has allowed me to have a career, balance family life and travel extensively.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
In 2016, I was appointed global head of health, safety and environment, despite having no qualifications in safety. When I asked why they chose me, I was told it was because of my inspirational leadership, and my willingness to collaborate and deliver value. Hearing such positive feedback was a proud moment. I used that leadership position to advocate for the team that wanted to implement a global mental health awareness programme. To date, we have trained over 1,000 mental health champions in 21 countries, with 1,000 employee volunteers. That has been my proudest achievement – to lift the lid on the stigma associated with mental illness and know that every day will make a difference to the world.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the profession?
It has changed considerably in 33 years. For one, we are no longer as much in the minority and we see more women in very senior leadership roles, which is encouraging more women to stay in the profession and others to come through. Organisations in the UK, helped by regulations, have moved a long way in flexible working and maternity and paternity rights and we have much to be proud of.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Go for it! The world needs engineers of all disciplines to help solve the problem of sustaining our planet. Today’s generation and those that follow will need to cope with climate change, resource depletion, water consumption, energy misuse, overpopulation and the list could go on. The mitigation and potential solutions all involve engineering skills. The war on human capital has begun, and a career in engineering is one that can be both fulfilling but also secure.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Balance for Better’. How can engineers contribute to a gender-balanced world?
By demonstrating the power of diverse thinking and engaging teams to solve problems by proactively selecting different skills and perspectives. Let’s focus on embracing diverse thought, experience, and creating an environment where we hear all viewpoints. A diverse working environment will attract and retain the best engineers irrespective of age, gender, race and lifestyle.
This profile was created for International Women’s Day in March 2019. All information was correct at time of publication