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Meet the engineer helping defend Norfolk’s coastline from the sea

PUBLISHED: 07:56 23 June 2020 | UPDATED: 14:54 23 June 2020

Fiona Keenaghan, North Norfolk District Council's assistant coastal engineer. Picture: Supplied by Fiona Keenaghan

Fiona Keenaghan, North Norfolk District Council's assistant coastal engineer. Picture: Supplied by Fiona Keenaghan

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How can we inspire more women to consider careers in engineering? Reporter STUART ANDERSON spoke to one of Norfolk’s female engineers.

Cromer Pier, which Fiona Keenaghan has worked on as part of her role as North Norfolk District Council assistant coastal engineer. Picture: JP AppletonCromer Pier, which Fiona Keenaghan has worked on as part of her role as North Norfolk District Council assistant coastal engineer. Picture: JP Appleton

Thousands of women worked in engineering during the First World War, but afterwards were encouraged to give up their jobs to make way for returning servicemen.

That’s why a group of influential women came together in London in 1919 to found the world’s first Women’s Engineering Society.

The idea was to resist the pressure on women to leave the profession, and to promote engineering as a rewarding career for women as well as men. June 23 marks the anniversary of that founding, and it is celebrated annually as International Women in Engineering Day.

But despite these efforts, only 12pc of practicing engineers in the UK are women.

Sea defences in Walcott. Picture: Peter JarvisSea defences in Walcott. Picture: Peter Jarvis

Fiona Keenaghan, North Norfolk District Council’s assistant coastal engineer, said more young women would consider the field if they knew what a “brilliant” career it could be.

Miss Keenaghan, 25, from Cromer, said: “You have to be able to solve problems, think outside the box and to be of a practical and analytical mindset.

“One of the biggest rewards is seeing the final product. Being involved with the design, planning and construction of a project can, at times, be frustrating but seeing the final outcome makes it all worthwhile.

“You’re able to travel the world. I’ve been extremely lucky so early in my career to work on a number of world-renowned projects and have met the most interesting and inspiring people.”

Fiona Keenaghan, North Norfolk District Council's assistant coastal engineer. Picture: Supplied by Fiona KeenaghanFiona Keenaghan, North Norfolk District Council's assistant coastal engineer. Picture: Supplied by Fiona Keenaghan

Few specialisations seem as uniquely relevant to north Norfolk as coastal engineering, as the district has some of the country’s fastest eroding shores.

But Miss Keenaghan’s journey into the field was anything but a straight one. Her A-Levels were in graphic design, history, economics and German.

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She said: “It was not engineering-related at all. I was unsure what I wanted to do once I completed my A-levels but knew I wanted to do an apprenticeship to gain work experience whilst studying at the same time.

“My dad suggested that I look into engineering apprenticeships as my older brother had done something similar.”

Her apprenticeship started in 2013, working on the Tideway project, a scheme to build a 25km “super sewer” underneath the River Thames to deal with sewage overflows.

As part of Tideway, Miss Keenaghan helped to build a cofferdam – a watertight enclosure that can be pumped dry to allow work below the waterline – which sparked her interest in coastal and marine engineering.

She then did a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in civil engineering, and then a degree apprenticeship at Kingston University, where, for a time, she worked on HS2.

Though most of Miss Keenaghan’s classmates were male, she said the atmosphere was positive and the gender imbalance was a non-issue.

She said: “I was studying with like-minded people who also understood the struggles of balancing work with studies, and we all supported and helped one another.”

Keeping north Norfolk’s coastal defences fit for purpose is the focus of her current role.

She said: “I also try to identify small schemes that will benefit beaches and in turn help slow the rate of coastal erosion. I am also assisting with the works on Cromer Pier.”

Engineering has a broad scope spanning electrical, chemical, mechanical, civil and hundreds of other fields, but Miss Keenaghan said they were united by “giving something back” to society.

She said: “Whether that be the construction of a bridge or developing a new software, it all benefits members of the public.”

On how to encourage more girls and young women to consider getting into engineering, Miss Keenaghan said: “I think there should be more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) related subjects to encourage more women to consider a career in this field.”

She said promoting the opportunities for women in engineering at job fairs, work experience programmes and having engineers speak in schools could also help 
promote the career.


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