Perpetual motion

Although she had to fight to get into engineering, it was a battle worth pursuing for Colette O’Shea, who is as enamoured by her work today as she was when starting out over 20 years ago.

Chartered engineer Colette O’Shea – one of the youngest people to attain fellowship with Engineers Ireland – is currently plying her trade as Head of Strategic Procurement for Ireland at AECOM, while also acting as Project Director on several strategic infrastructure projects for the firm. From her perspective, she could not have chosen a better place from which to satisfy her lifelong craving to constantly be learning new things and growing professionally.

A leading provider of integrated design consultancy to a wide range of public and private sector clients, AECOM employs approximately 50,000 worldwide and more than 700 in Ireland. Covering all aspects of engineering, project management etc, it is multi-disciplinary in the true sense of the term. “I’ve been here over a year and have yet to come across something we can’t do,” says Colette.

Getting here

Colette, whose original degree was in civil engineering, comes from a family that has been knee deep in both engineering and quantity surveying for several generations. Her dad, uncle and grandfather were all engineers or quantity surveyors, and her brother is also a QS.

However, because of her gender Colette and her parents had to battle to get her on the path to an engineering career.

“When I was in school, engineering was never put on the table for me,” she says. “We had to fight for me to study science or honours maths, and if I hadn’t had a family that understood the industry, I wouldn’t have ended up doing it.”

Her father in particular had a big influence on the direction she took. As a teenager she would study his drawings and try to get an understanding of his work. While at college she worked for a contractor on summer placements and it was at that point that she developed an enduring interest in water engineering in particular. She spent 18 years in that part of the industry and loved every minute. But she has always loved learning new things and was never content to coast along. So she picked up a string of qualifications along the way, including for example a masters in project management, and diplomas in law, commercial contracts and, most recently, coaching. The latter she chose in order to help her support her team at AECOM.

Three years ago saw her finally branch away from water a little, joining the National Development Finance Agency and specialising in PPP procurement. This, she says simply, was “fascinating.” Having gained invaluable experience there, she was approached about her current role, which she took on last year, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Colette has worked both as consultant and client in the technical delivery, contract advisory and strategic procurement arenas. She has supported client organisations such as the National Development Finance Agency, Irish Water, ESB, Dublin Port, National Transport Authority and Dublin Airport Authority to deliver strategic infrastructure projects as part of the National Development Plan. The complex nature and scale of the projects that AECOM undertakes for these clients and clients worldwide is what attracted Colette to the company.

According to AECOM, its work involves applying “creative vision, technical excellence, interdisciplinary insight and local expertise” to solve clients’ most complex challenges in “new and better ways.” With offices in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Galway, , the firm is behind the design and construction of some of Ireland’s largest hospitals, most prestigious commercial and residential developments, and complex infrastructure schemes. It is proud of its agile teams, which provide multidisciplinary services and specialist expertise to every scale of project: from large regeneration schemes to local community-led initiatives.

In the company’s fiscal results for the third quarter of this year, it reported increased revenue, including double-digit net service revenue (NSR) in the design business. Commenting on the results, CEO Troy Rudd said that AECOM is consistently delivering on its financial and strategic commitments, which is positioning it to outperform its initial guidance for a fourth consecutive year. “Our third quarter results included accelerating organic NSR growth, margin expansion to a new quarterly high, double-digit adjusted EPS (earnings per share) growth and strong cash flow. In addition, our backlog in the design business reached a new high and our proposals and bids submitted continued to increase at an even faster rate.”

Colette’s position within AECOM is very much a hybrid role, she explains. On the procurement side she works with clients – among them many large public sector clients – in determining how they want to spend their budget. Driving this is the National Development Plan and the extensive body of work it has added to the agenda. “We are working on how best to manage risk on projects through procurement by using the correct form of contract, and also through the design strategy,” says Colette.

When she has her project director hat on, she leads a number of infrastructure projects for both public and private sector clients. For example she is currently working on several planning applications in the public sector. Her remit stretches across numerous areas, including water, energy and aviation. The varied nature of her role ties in well with her thirst for learning as well as her affinity with people.

“I love engineering and solving problems, but I also love meeting a wide variety of people,” she says. Her job certainly ticks this box, not just on the client side but also within AECOM itself (she has 20-plus people reporting to her). Another factor that drew her to her current role is that she has always had a soft spot for all things legal and contract related – a bonus when you are working in procurement. “I love law, and enjoy working with wording and how words are interpreted,” she says, adding that she does a bit of creative writing in her spare time.

Colette says she is encouraged by the fact that there is a move within the industry towards the New Engineering Contract (NEC) and more collaborative contracts generally. Referring to the very sizeable infrastructure projects on the national to-do list, she says it can be tricky to define exactly what’s needed from the start. “But if we can get people with the right skills working with clients at an early stage, we can drive value for money, and move away from that race to the bottom,” she adds.

“Even before I joined AECOM I was a nerdy water engineer,” she says, “and the  procurement work I get to do here I don’t think I would have got elsewhere.” The company has opened many doors for her, and while she still loves working on water projects, about 80 per cent of her work is now in transport, energy and aviation. “It is great to get that exposure,” she says. “Nothing is siloed; in other words if you have the experience and you’re the best person for a project, you work on it. For someone like me, for whom continued learning is so important, it’s great to be in a culture that allows me to grow even after 20-plus years.”

It’s not the only aspect of AECOM’s culture that sits well with the engineer. While Colette has worked for large multinationals in the past, AECOM scores best for its inclusive and team-like culture. “If I need, say, an architect who specialises in e-cars, there will be someone here who is only too keen to help, and when you are trying to deliver a project that makes life a lot easier.”

Staff wellbeing

Colette is adamant about the importance of an open and supportive attitude towards mental health in this industry. Having suffered badly from burnout a few years ago herself, she is determined to provide her own team with whatever they need in this regard. This could be as simple as making sure that people take their holidays and truly disconnect from work. “Just because we have phones doesn’t mean we should be accessible constantly,” she says. As an ambitious person herself, she knows all too well how easy it is to get caught up in work and take your eye off the ball healthwise.

With this in mind, AECOM has a flexible work policy led by staff wellbeing. For example Colette has to go for regular physio on her knee at the moment, so she starts late every Monday. “It is not even questioned,” she says. “The company is focused on making sure people get the sustenance they need to work.”

Women in engineering

Following on from her own discouraging experience as a young woman attempting to break into engineering, Colette set up the Women in Engineering group within Engineers Ireland. It clearly struck a chord; it has 800-plus members and is still growing. According to Colette, initiatives like this are hugely important because things have not moved on as much as they should have since she left school. “No matter how recently they graduated, women still face the same challenges,” she says. “There are still barriers.” As she puts it, much of it comes down to awareness, and showing women what is out there for them. “There are lots of women working very successfully in engineering; we just need to open that up and make it more visible,” she says. “If you can’t see it you can’t be it.”

Challenges ahead

From Colette’s point of view, probably the biggest challenge facing the sector in the coming years is capacity. “If you look at all the infrastructure works proposed in the next 10 years, there is a huge amount of work to be delivered. But we are not as good as we could be at selling Ireland Inc to the world as an attractive market in which to invest.”

She says that there is only so much work any one contractor can do. “We’re a really attractive market, and I’d like to see a greater push at selling us so that we can get the companies and resources that we need.” Failing this, she says, there could be major restrictions to the Government’s plans, with certain projects simply unable to proceed.

Another potential stumbling block given the sheer volume of work in the offing is getting skilled staff. However, in AECOM’s case its global reach has enabled it to leverage teams from other areas when needed and Ireland is a strategic growth focus for AECOM.

For example, Colette has several UK-based teams that support her on certain projects, as well as support from the firm’s Global Program management team on strategic pursuits and major programmes. “One thing Covid did was remove barriers; as long as we have the right skills they don’t necessarily need to be sitting beside you in Dublin to deliver the best project.”

But for now…

Not one for sitting still very much, Colette already has a long to-do list for the coming year – not least the first Christmas party for the Women in Engineering group. But she is also in the throes of launching a mentoring network, which she has done several time in the past for different organisations.

It is certainly what she is most excited about at the moment, and all going to plan it should get off the ground at the end of this year or very early in 2024. “It will be a huge gamechanger,” she says. “To create links between women and the industry whereby they can get some advice or just get to know people who are going through the same thing.”

This article first appeared in Issue 4 2023 of Irish building magazine.

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