Becoming a successful woman in STEM

Janice Steel is a successful STEM lecturer at Ayrshire College. Her background is in joinery and quantity surveying and this month she has just been promoted to capital projects manager for Ayrshire College, managing a budget of £1.6m. Success seems to follow her wherever she goes and this makes her the perfect interviewee for our latest blog series — How to be successful – read her story and find out how hard work and perseverance has paid off.

Where did your career start?Janice Steel

I left Auchinleck Academy after 5th year and started as an apprentice joiner with Cumnock and Doon Valley. I come from a farming background. At this time daughters of farmers typically had a job in an office or a bank. My mum and dad wanted me to go down this route and encouraged me to take Secretarial Studies at school. I am ashamed to say I deliberately failed my course so that I was offered an alternative course – the one I really wanted to do – tech drawing. I was strong at craft and design, maths and anything practical was my kind of thing. Eventually my mum and dad realised this, and let me choose my own path. Lesson number one for being successful is knowing your own strengths and going along with your gut feeling. Just be yourself.

So, you started your career at college?

As an apprentice joiner, I attended college during my four-year apprenticeship. I came top in my year and won the “Ben Francis Award for Advanced Craft”. I was really proud of my achievement. It showed me that whatever you do – you should work hard and do it well – be the best you can be. Following this, I did two years day release studying building technology and two years day release to get my HNC Construction Management. This gave me the qualifications I needed to go to university.

What did you do at University?

I packed in my job and went to Glasgow Caledonian University as a full-time student studying building surveying. I got a nine month placement with Clark Contracts in Paisley doing quantity surveying. I loved this so changed my course to study quantity surveying and completed my degree year. Clark Contracts took me on and I completed my honours year on a part-time basis. I had found what I was good at and I loved being in control of the works. The quantity surveyor is basically the banker and tries to keep the project on time and on budget by reporting the costs monthly. I worked on really interesting projects such as the University of Glasgow student flats, Govan Town Hall and Rutherglen Health Centre.

I then worked for Hall and Tawse on the BT buildings in Gorgie Street in Edinburgh, refurbishing and fitting out. I moved on to McConnell Roofing and Decorating, which was closer to home as I had now married a Kilmarnock farmer. However my job took me all over the UK. Contracts included re-roofing to buildings within the HM Prison sector.

How did you get into teaching?

It was just by chance – I met one of my previous lecturers and he said they were looking for a new lecturer and I would be a good candidate. I got the job and worked 3 days as a lecturer and 2 days as a self-employed surveyor. I’ve taught on joinery courses, built environment, construction management and quantity surveying.

What do you love about teaching?

I love seeing the students get a kick out of learning. I loved it here as a student and I learned loads through brilliant teaching from the lecturers – college also helped me get into university. School is not for everyone, it wasn’t until I came to college that I found my feet which started me on my chosen career. It’s been great for me to come back and help the current students understand what is needed to become successful as a construction professional. Hopefully I show the same passion that I experienced from the lecturing staff whilst being a student here.

How do you bring it alive to the students?

I contextualise their learning. There is no point in just sitting in a classroom – you need to take them out onto sites and show them what you mean. I have made so many contacts in this industry and through LinkedIn, I contact the people I know and arrange visits and placements for my students.

I have built the placements into the courses. It’s a reality check for them – they have got to start at 8am. It’s a real eye-opener for many of them but 95% of them loved it and can understand the relevance of what I am teaching. The placements help them keep their heads down and focus on where they want to be. Another success tip – visualise where you want to be and set yourself goals to get there. Networking is one of the ways to get on in this industry. So if you can make a good impression on your placement, people will remember you when they have a job available.

The site visits are also good for my own CPD. It makes me more enthusiastic as I just love learning new things. It makes my teaching fresh – the construction industry is constantly changing so you need be up to date and well informed as you are responsible for preparing the future workforce.

In class, my presentations and discussions are all related to my experience. The contract was a success/disaster because… you’ve got to relate the theory to actual examples to make it real.

What are the career prospects like for your students?

There is such a shortage of good construction managers and quantity surveyors from trainees to experienced professionals. You only have to look on any job site and you’ll see the numerous positions available within construction and not only in this country, for those that are willing to travel, there are fantastic opportunities across the world. It’s a great career – you are in and out of the office, working on different projects with completely different challenges and teams each time. No job is the same – it’s very exciting and rewarding.

Is there equality in this industry?

When I started out as an apprentice joiner, I was in the minority – there were not many women in this role. I was passionate about my trade and I persevered to reach my long-term goals. Now there are more women interested in working in the construction industry and there are plenty of good opportunities. A good employer won’t put up with any discrimination and I would be surprised to hear comments of women getting treated differently in the workplace. Gender should not be an issue in any industry. I’ve only worked beside one woman in the 25 years I’ve been in the industry. The majority have been men – who have been very supportive and encouraging and I’ve had some fantastic mentors over the years, who’ve all been men. These comments I’ve heard such as women aren’t strong enough, they can’t hack the pace, they are too sensitive – all nonsense! Women can take the aggression out of a situation. We are firm, fair and very conscientious workers and can bring a different perspective to the table. Our reputation is very important to us and we want to be respected for the excellent job we do as does every construction professional whether male or female. Yes there are times when you need to stand up for yourself and certainly a strong personality helps. You need to have resilience because not everything is going to go right. You need to learn how to bounce back – you must have the enthusiasm, drive and motivation to get things done no matter what obstacles get in your way.

We have improved the intake of women greatly over the years which is fantastic but we need to do more and it all starts with the careers guidance at school level. We need to work together as industry and education to highlight the career choices within the construction sector. It’s also important to highlight the amount of successful women who are at the top within the industry. You only have to look at our very own Vice Principal of Estates and Facilities – Donna Vallance. She is a prime example of opportunities open to women who have experience, ability and desire to reach executive positions within our industry – the possibility of such positions were far out of reach for women not that long ago, but today we have so many more opportunities for us to aim for, should we so desire.

You have had a really successful year – what’s your secret?

It’s about working with a great team and networking. My colleague Barry Kerr and I have worked hard to find site visits that will help with the learning. Building up relationships with employers means that we can get some really great learning experiences for our students – we’ve worked hard on this through LinkedIn. The employers win as well as they are involved in the learning experience and have access to our talented students. The results this year have really improved and this is largely down to the students understanding the importance of the work experience/visits therefore, they’re feeling more motivated and enjoying their course. It’s important to celebrate their success so I make sure I post regular updates on social media thanking the employers for their involvement and work placement opportunities and the acknowledging the benefits of our partnership.

I’ve loved my time as a lecturer over the past 13 years both within the Carpentry & Joinery and Construction Technology sections. I’ve had the privilege to teach loads of inspiring and talented students over the years who are now construction professionals.

Every time I go on a site visit I want to stay, I miss the buzz of the operational side of construction and I feel I have some unfinished business within this area. I’ve been really fortunate to be given an opportunity to become the Capital Projects Manager within the Estates Department within Ayrshire College. As a construction professional this is a fantastic job and one which I’m looking forward to – I have a challenging summer programme of works, but I love a challenge!



Inspired by Janice? Come and meet more inspiring women in STEM at our Girls with Grit event on Monday 19 June 5pm – 7.30pm on our Kilmarnock Campus. Tickets are free but you need to book your place here.

View our construction courses on our website here.

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