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The right attitude

Engineer Amy O’Donnell was named 2018 Young Engineer of the Year by the Auckland branch of Civil Contractors New Zealand. MARY SEARLE BELL catches up with her

Winning Young Engineer of the Year is an accolade of which Amy is justifiably proud, yet humbled to receive.

“My project manager wanted to nominate me for the award, so I filled out the form but I didn’t expect to win. I was completely surprised when they called out my name,” she says.

“I just put my head down and work. It’s nice that someone noticed.”

Amy says the award has given her a massive confidence boost, and the process of filling in the entry provided a good opportunity to reflect on her career and achievements so far.

As a student at Mt Albert Grammar in Auckland, Amy completed her sixth form year and decided she’d had enough. Her mother was working in the civil construction industry at the time and thought Amy would do well as an engineer, and enjoy the learning environment. Plus, as she wisely pointed out, the money was good.

“I went along to a Women in Engineering event at Auckland University and was intrigued. I thought I could either do mechanical engineering through AUT or civil engineering with Unitec.

“However, I hadn’t completed seventh form which made things a bit trickier. As it turned out, as I had done seventh form maths when I was a sixth former, Unitec gave me discretionary admission to study civil engineering. The added bonus was that Unitec was pretty much over the road from our house!”

Amy suspects her mother may have been living vicariously through her, giving her a good push in the right direction. But it’s a push that has been welcomed, and has served Amy well.

“Going into it, I didn’t really know what it was about,” she says. “At the end of my second year of study, I got a holiday construction job over summer which was a real eye-opener.”

The summer job involved the construction of a road bridge over the railway line in Manurewa as part of the enabling works for the Auckland Electrification Project. Over Christmas, the railways close down on what is called a “block of line” to allow construction to happen, although a couple of trains still went through each day. The deadlines were fixed and the timetable strict.

“I really enjoyed it,” says Amy. “To see it on paper and then see it built in a few short months – from the demolition of the old bridge to the construction of the new, all in a summer break. It was a fabulous opportunity for a student.”

Amy says she learned so much in that one summer break.

“I was able to apply it to my study to such an extent that I received the Dean’s Award for my final year design project.”

After completing the third and final year of her degree (graduating top of her class and receiving the IPENZ award recognising her as the top academic performer overall in her year for the Bachelor of Engineering Technology), Amy commenced a graduate role which turned into a five year tenure before an interesting opportunity came up with CPB Contractors prompting her to switch.

“The position they offered me was on a project I had previously been involved with through the tender process while working for a competing contractor, so I knew a lot about it already, and I had recently completed a similar project so felt confident and excited about the role.”

Eighteen months later, she’s still working on that project and really enjoying the role.

“We’re widening the State Highway 1 at Takanini – it’s a busy stretch of the motorway with over 100,000 vehicles per day and there are live services to deal with too.

“We’ve had many challenges, such as working with heavy plant and machinery in a busy urban and motorway environment. We’re about halfway through, and works are scheduled to be completed late 2019.

“My first assignment with CPB Contractors was the Orams Road bridge replacement works which involved a shortened timeline, and constructability constraints, which added further challenges,” she told Contractor.

However, it seems Amy thrives on a challenge: “Overall, things went well, and we ended up delivering the works safely and on time.

“I think that if things went well all the time I could get a bit bored,” she says with a laugh.

With eight years’ experience in the industry, Amy is hoping to angle her career towards construction management and project management.

“In five years I’d like to manage a small project from start to finish. In 10 years I’d like to be managing a $100 million or so project or be a discipline manager on a really big project. And in 20 years, my aim is to be a project director on a massive multi-million dollar project.”

She is very aware of what it will take to achieve these goals.

“Having the right attitude is important,” she says. “You need to be hands-on, be a team player, and be willing to learn. An ability to solve problems and improve efficiencies is a great skill – there are a lot of repetitive processes on a project, which can always be improved.

“Planning and organisation is important, but your best assets are the people on the ground and them working well together.”

For other women thinking about engineering as a career choice, Amy thoroughly recommends it, and says with many companies being focused on diversifying their workforce, it offers an advantage to women keen on moving on in the industry.

But she does add that women shouldn’t take this hand-up for granted: “You need to work hard and do well on your own merits.”

“You can’t be precious. It’s a lot of hard work but for those like me, who don’t like being stuck behind a desk all day, engineering is hands-on and is something I’m really passionate about.”

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