An award-winning woman’s thoughts on construction

Earlier this year, Matchtech proudly sponsored the Engineer of the Year Civils/Infrastructure Award at the Women in Construction Awards. We caught up with the well-deserved winner, Sophie Payne, to find out more about her career and what she loves about working in construction.


Why celebrate women in construction?

Construction is still a male-dominated industry, but this is gradually improving and attitudes are changing. There are more women rising to senior positions and demonstrating that it is possible to have a successful career in construction. This is a great opportunity to showcase to future and young engineers that there are opportunities in the industry and to be a role model to others. Hopefully we can inspire the next generation of engineers.


What has been your career high point?

In engineering there are always problems to solve due to the nature of what we do. These challenges tend to spur me on and it is hugely rewarding to complete these projects. On a recent scheme for Thames Water, I was the lead tunnel engineer and Atkins project manager to design a tunnel under the Great Western railway to install a water main inside to supply water to Swindon. There were challenges throughout the scheme including technical issues and gaining acceptance of the design. After a year and a half of hard work, I was on site to see the tunnel boring machine extracted from the ground after installing the tunnel successfully. Nothing quite describes how you feel seeing 'your' tunnel completed. Alongside this project I also gained my ICE chartership, which was a great achievement.


What makes a career in construction exciting for you?

Each day is generally different for me, whether it is undertaking detailed analysis, solving a technical problem, leading projects or liaising with project teams and clients. I'm continually learning and get to spend a mixture of my time in the office and out on site. There are great career opportunities in the industry at present and many major projects in the pipeline. As engineers we have the opportunity to shape the world that we live in, which is a huge responsibility as a profession, but also exciting.


What do you think is the most impressive feat of engineering in the construction world?

That is a really difficult question as there's a long list of impressive feats of engineering! So for now I'm going to say Crossrail, to cover a scheme in my sector of the industry and a project I'm proud to have worked on. It's not necessarily glamorous like some iconic structures, but it's Europe's largest construction scheme, and consists of 42km of tunnel and 10 new stations, for the underground works alone. It's incredible to see the underground structures and tunnels being completed under the heart of London and with little impact to life above ground and the surrounding structures. With caverns up to 16m in diameter, it's incredible to be standing inside one to appreciate the size.


What excites you most about the future of construction?

At the moment significant investment is being put into infrastructure projects. There are a number of exciting projects in the pipeline and growth is being seen in the sector. There is a shift in our work to utilise emerging technology, embrace digitalisation and innovation is becoming key to success in the market. I think that we will start to see rapid change, which will create new opportunities and challenge the current way of thinking.


What advice would you give to someone thinking of working in construction?

I would recommend undertaking work experience, to see what it’s all about. Most companies in the sector offer work experience and you may even find yourself securing sponsorship through university and/or future work placements. I love working in the industry, as each day is different and I really enjoy solving problems. There are great projects and such a wide range of disciplines, plus opportunities to work for a consultant, contractor or client. Don’t be put off by other people’s opinions of working in construction, give it a go yourself and I’m sure you will never look back!

Sophie is a Senior Tunnel Engineer at Atkins. She has worked on a range of projects from feasibility study through to detailed design and through to provision of site support. Her projects include High Speed Two, Crossrail, Victoria Station Upgrade and recently schemes for Thames Water. She is experienced in design, leading teams and a project manager.


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