Read Yvonne’s story on how she became Chief Design Engineer at BAE Systems.
How I ended up as an engineering apprentice
I went to Auchinleck Academy where my favourite subjects were Science, Maths and Art so my career plan early on was to do architecture or interior design. Then in my fourth year at school I got the opportunity to join 30 other girls across Scotland on the Jordanhill Campus and experience a week learning about Engineering. I got a work placement in Ravenscraig and also a site visit to Rolls Royce. This experience changed my mind and I knew at that point engineering was going to be my career.
I attended a careers convention in Cumnock at which BAE Systems was looking for apprentices. Of the 37 selected, I was the only girl but that did not phase me at all. I left school at 16 years of age and eagerly anticipated my new job where I would be earning and learning at the same time.
In our first year we all went through an in-house training school gaining experience in a wide range of skills – electrical, sheet metal working, detail fitting, machining – and at the end of the year we were asked which trade we preferred. I chose to become an aircraft electrician.
Achieving my qualifications
I started college and attended the now Ayr campus of Ayrshire College on a day release basis to complete ONC Electrical and Electronic Engineering. It was great being able to work and learn right here in Ayrshire. I moved to what is now the Kilmarnock campus of Ayrshire College to study for my HNC qualification and in the workplace I gained experience in electrical loom formation, panel assembly, leading to the installation on aircraft and connecting all the major electrical/avionic components.
I then moved to the “Flightline” and learned how to test the navigation, communication and passenger service systems. It’s at this stage the aircraft is tested on the ground to support the safety case to take it flying. My job would be to monitor electrical systems while the aircraft were doing performing engine ground runs.
During my apprenticeship, I had a placement in the design office and worked from initial aircraft design concepts to final designs, manufacturing and installation support. I really enjoyed this experience and it led to me being offered a position as a trainee design engineer. From the start it was a well paid job and by the time I was 19 years of age I could afford to buy my own house and be financially independent.
Moving up the ladder
Over the last 20 years I have progressed up the career ladder to design engineer, senior design engineer, principal design engineer, project design engineer, deputy chief design engineer to my current role as chief design engineer.
I have responsibility for the capability of the design team, training and development, governance and technical leadership on programmes of work. An example of a project we have recently worked on is modifying a commercial aircraft for the Ministry of Defence. We had to understand what our customer requirements were and modify the aircraft with defensive aids, avionic upgrades, cabin interior changes and then get all these changes certificated either by the UK CAA and MAA.
The best part of my job is resolving the technical complexities of aircraft design. I also like working with different people across the organisation. I am the chair of the “Fleet Integrity” process which monitors airworthiness events on our aircraft types. This includes looking at aircraft problems, trends and making sure we make informed decisions about the safety of our product.
Engineering your future
It’s a really exciting job where you learn something new every day. I’ve had lots of opportunities to travel the world throughout my career. Women are more than capable of working in this environment but I do believe there is still a feeling you have to prove yourself as it is still a “man’s world culture” in this industry. However I have always found my colleagues to be very supportive and respectful and I have never felt being a woman has disadvantaged me or held me back as I have grown and developed over the last 25 years.
Yvonne Neil, BAE Systems