Your best opportunity to change the world

May 1, 2019

When Penny Marshall told her mum in the mid-1970s that she wanted to be a civil engineer she was told ‘girls don’t do that’. After graduating from Newcastle University – where she was the only female in her class – she started to wonder whether her mum was right as she struggled to find a job as a civil engineer. Penny eventually gained a trainee contract at Tyne & Wear County Council and she has since carved out an impressive career as a civil engineer. In 2014, she became regional director for the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and now works across the North East, Yorkshire and Humber, to support and promote the profession to all. She speaks to Alison Cowie

When and why did you decide to become a civil engineer?

I studied languages at school and aspired to be a translator. But then I went along to a careers evening for the local boys’ school where I met an inspirational civil engineer. That was it; I was sold. I went home and told my mum that I wanted to be a civil engineer. She said ‘don’t be daft, girls don’t do that.’

That obviously didn’t put you off, what were the next steps to you realising your dream?

I had to do a couple of extra O levels and I had to change everything I had planned to do at A level. I then got a place at Newcastle University to study civil engineering.

Tell me about your early career?

I graduated in 1979 when no one wanted a girl engineer. I became a maths teacher but all the while I kept looking for a job in civil engineering. After several abortive interviews, I got a job with Tyne & Wear County Council as a junior engineer. They put me on a training scheme, which was great because I got to try a little bit of everything. When I qualified, I was put in the structures team.

Did you have any role models in civil engineering at the time?

There wasn’t anyone really – and certainly not any female ones. It’s interesting because, even now, we all know of famous architects, famous doctors and famous scientists, but most people, if they were asked to name a famous civil engineer, would be hard pressed to.

How did your career progress?

I spent the first 12 years of my career in local authorities and I can point to lots of different bits of road that I’ve built in the North East. For example, I built the roads into the Metro Centre. I also built a bridge over the A19. My children got sick of me telling them every time we drove past but in civil engineering, you get very attached to the things you’ve made.

After local authorities, I went to work for what was then the Highways Agency ,where I project-managed larger projects. I then went to the Government Office for the North East in a role that was much more about policy – so deciding what got built and who was awarded the contracts.

I left there and had six months doing all manner of things – including a brief spell in renewable energy. I then joined the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). I started as a membership development officer, working with young engineers to help them get professionally qualified. I moved from that to become the regional director for the North East, which was then expanded to include Yorkshire and Humber.

What does the ICE do?

Globally, we have 92,000 individual members and, of that, I’m responsible for about 6600. We provide a number of services, such as knowledge, best practice and continuous professional development advice and support. We also help people achieve their Chartered qualifications. A lot of my job is about educating people about what civil engineering is. We do a lot of outreach with schools and last summer we held the Great North Engineering Experience at the Mining Institute in Newcastle, which had more than 34,000 visitors.

Is the civil engineering sector in the North East in a good place at present?

Civil engineering is in suspended animation at the moment. With Brexit, investors have been wary of investing in [civil engineering] projects. There’s not as much in the pipeline as there should be. You only have to look at the number of cranes over the skyline of North East cities to know there’s not much going on. That said, the housebuilding industry is quite buoyant, which is good.

Does that mean that North East civil engineering companies are struggling?

The thing to remember is that civil engineering is a global profession. We don’t just do it here. So the young engineers that I work with and I meet regularly, like being based in Newcastle but they might be working on a project in Qatar for the World Cup in 2022, or on a bridge in Singapore. They’re working all over the world. The state of the industry here doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t anything to do or that there aren’t any jobs. There are lots of opportunities.

How has civil engineering changed since you started in the sector?

When I started there were lots of small, local firms but most of these have been taken over by multinational conglomerates. These big firms win work in the international market and then put that work into the places where there are the right skills. We have some highly skilled people in the North East doing very complex design. This is exciting for young people entering the profession.

What about the local SMEs?

There is still room for SMEs in the civil engineering space, but they need to have a USP. They need to offer something special and something a bit different. Of course, that begs the question, what is civil engineering and what is it going to be?

Ok, so what is civil engineering and what is it going to be?

At the moment, when you think of civil engineering you think about steel, bridges, rivets and holes in the ground. But in the future, there will be smart motorways and autonomous vehicles. That will need very specific infrastructure. A lot of what will be needed to deliver civil engineering projects going forward will be high-tech.

Is that change being recognised in the North East?

I don’t think it’s recognised anywhere in the world, which means there’s an opportunity for the North East. There’s a lot of high-quality tech going on at the moment and if we marry the civil engineering industry with some of these small innovators – there’s the potential for us to be world-leading.

Is marrying that relationship the responsibility of organisations such as the ICE?

As an organisation, the ICE is already having those conversations with people in related industries. We need to do more of that going forward and we must understand the technology better too.

What is the biggest threat to civil engineering?

We have to remain relevant. If, as a profession, if we carry on thinking of ourselves as being the people who dig holes, we’ll be very quickly side- lined. We need to make sure we embrace new technologies. We must recognise that the world is changing very quickly and we have to change with it.

Civil engineering is often dependent on governments investing in infrastructure projects. Would you say the current Government is helping or hindering the sector in the region?

The infrastructure sector very much depends on Government investment and it’s fair to say that the current Government is less keen on investing in the North than we would like them to be. That said, the National Infrastructure Commission has made some good recommendations and if they come to fruition, there’ll be lots for projects in the North to do. It’ll also create a more continuous pipeline of work.

You mentioned that part of your responsibility as a regional director for the ICE is showcasing the opportunities of a in career civil engineering. Why do you think people should choose civil engineering as a career?

Because it’s the best job ever. Young people are very altruistic these days; they’re interested in sustainable development and climate change. Civil engineers will have a huge role to play in that. A few years back, the British Medical Council said that civil engineers save more lives than doctors because we’re the ones that provide the clean water, the sanitation and the infrastructure. If you want to change the world – civil engineering is the way to do it.

How accessible is it to become a civil engineer?

I went into civil engineering via the traditional route – by going to university – but now you can get there through an apprenticeship. You can be earning a wage, have someone else pay for your tuition fees, and end up with a degree and Chartered qualifications by your late twenties – which is precisely the same if you go through the standard route. We need to get young people and their parents to understand that there are alternative ways into the profession.

Given your own experiences as a female choosing civil engineering, do you think things are different now?

When I studied civil engineering at Newcastle University in the late 70s, the class was 67 men and me. I thought by the time I got to the age I am now; we would be pushing 50:50. But we’re nowhere near. The overall ICE membership is about 13 per cent women, and in a good year, the UK university intake in civil engineering is about 20 per cent women. In Eastern European countries, more women than men go into engineering so it’s not that women can’t do it; it’s just that there’s still this perception that civil engineering is for boys. We need to get school teachers and parents to understand that this is a career that anybody can do. At ICE, we’re working on changing that perception and we will continue to do that.

Institution of Civil Engineers

Scroll to next article
Go to

Newcastle: A North Eastern Powerhouse