James Featherstone, MEng GMICE, SELA Cohort 2014
In my second year of university, I was successful in applying to Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy’s inaugural cohort. This was something I was particularly keen to be a part of in order to build on my softer skills – leadership, organisation, presentation, teamwork, networking and self-awareness. What I didn’t expect was the incredible opportunity SELA would present me and others with to have access to engineers and academics who were the leaders in their respective fields, as well as the benefits that working in a group of like-minded individuals on lengthy projects would have.
The technical knowledge one learns at university is of course a necessity when going into an engineering workplace – even within the Network Rail engineering graduate scheme, there are clear differences in levels of understanding and interest based on the degree discipline people specialised in. However, unless you are planning on being a technical expert in a specific aspect of engineering, it is the softer skills which benefit you the most and set you apart when joining a large engineering company (or any other industry, for that matter). The importance of communication, networking, presentation and time-management cannot be emphasised enough.
The ability to take on responsibility and seek out opportunity has been key in my progress so far: it has led to me getting involved in a number of projects and groups already (having only been on the graduate scheme for approximately 5 months at the time of writing this).
I also conducted research into Sustainable Development within Infrastructure Projects (IP) at Network Rail, and presented my findings to the IP Executive Board. This involved a large amount of correspondence with regional teams and analysis of causality and trends. Looking back, the skills I was required to use were extremely similar to those used in my second year SELA project exploring the decarbonisation of the UK energy network – communication, analysis and succinct presentation of findings to a panel of experts. Following my success in this work, I have been approached by other teams within the company to look into their current approaches and how they can be improved - as a graduate, being a fresh pair of eyes and willing to question ‘the norm’ is very useful to established teams.
My time with SELA is something I look back fondly on, and an opportunity which I do not underestimate the benefits of. The skills and ethos it teaches are hard to recognise in your every-day life because it becomes part of who you are and how you conduct yourself – it’s not like learning how to use a set of equations or a piece of software. Those who are lucky enough to be accepted will already be among the top engineers Sheffield has to offer – the learning from each other is equally as important as the talks from external speakers and the SELA team. I have an immense amount of respect for everyone else in my cohort, having worked with them over two years, and hope to come across some of them in the future. I’m certain that going forward in my career, there will be many more moments of reflection when I look back and see the direct benefits of being a SELA member.