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Insights A woman's place is in construction: here's why

Meet Nicole Michelle, one of our talented senior commercial managers who is transforming the construction industry. She works in transportation in the strategic rail market, where she collaborates with multiple teams across our organization. Nicole Michelle tells us how she "fell into construction" but ended up in her dream career with focus and determination.

How did you end up in construction?

It wasn't my first choice of career. I wanted to work in prisons, but they weren't recruiting, so I settled for a job  as a contract administrator for civil engineering projects. Essentially my role was making sure everybody on site had all the information and documentation they needed to get the job done. Soon the business recognized that I had the passion and potential and offered to help me do a Higher National Certificate. To keep my options open, I started with a basic course in construction.

How did you get into quantity surveying and commercial management?

A couple of years later, I started a BSc in commercial management and quantity surveying at Preston University. I was studying part-time and working full-time but felt my studies were suffering from a lack of on-the-job experience. So I found a job where I'd be able to work as an assistant QS and continue studying. After five years, I wanted to do something extra. So I pursued a master's in construction law and dispute resolution. The law degree gave me further credibility and the confidence to be an expert in my field. I really benefited from the additional knowledge and access to the resources and industry expertise.

What was going to law school like?

It was an extremely hard slog, which I did all in my own time, without any day release. Any time off work was spent making sense of hundreds of textbooks and scribbled notes and forcing myself to remember thousands of case law references. Cruelly, my end-of-semester examinations were in January and the beginning of May. I spent two long years with no Christmas or Easter celebrations. When I graduated, I have to admit I shed tears of pride. The difficulty of that experience is what made it even more worthwhile.

image of Nicole at her law graduation with her son

You joined Atkins soon after graduating. As a woman, how accessible are opportunities in the organization?

Since day one, I've been signposted to opportunities to progress my career and experience. I've been here for about three years and have progressed in leaps and bounds. I'm extremely proud to work in an organization that's so diverse in people and practice and really champions the diversity of its workforce. Atkins is a fantastic place to work. We have a lot of disciplines, so you get to dip your toes into lots and lots of different aspects of civil engineering.

How does Atkins support your needs in and out of work?

I have been working flexibly as part of the role, and my Line manager is sensitive to my needs as a single parent. Atkins' flexible working policy means I can work around things like the school run. This is invaluable. Apart from saving me £500 a year on school bus fees, I can spend more quality time with my son. Even if it's in the morning traffic listening to music together!

How are you helping to shape the culture #InsideAtkins?

I am a menopause Advocate, (yet to be announced officially). I'll be one of a group of advocates who will signpost credible information, listen to people's personal stories and offer support and guidance when requested. Our focus will be raising awareness and challenging behaviours to remove the stigma around "women's problems" – because it affects us all. Atkins has also updated its absence policy, allowing for adjustments for those enduring the symptoms of menopause. We just want to keep more people happy, healthy and doing the jobs they love!

Tell us more about how you're promoting digital tools in your division.

One of the biggest challenges we face in the next five to 10 years is the digital evolution and adapting to it. Atkins is at the forefront of innovation and aspires to be the most  efficient design and engineering market leader. The organization is investing in empowering and encouraging the PDP digital transformation team to raise awareness of the digital tools we can use to make our lives easier. That's not to phase out humans per se, but to make us more productive. It's an exciting time, and I'm thrilled to be a part of this extremely important journey.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I manage two live projects, Testing Verification Validation & Integration (TVV&I) and Midland Mainline Electrification (MMLE). My role varies from submitting early warnings to chasing payments.

TVV&I is a prestigious project and the first of its kind in the UK. We're delivering an advanced signalling equipment test facility to allow the UK to safely and efficiently modernize its railway network. I'm very proud of this, as I was in the bid team and am now in the delivery team!

MMLE is a hugely important piece of infrastructure work that is publicized and political. I enjoy the huge amount of effort from all the disciplines on this one. There are literally thousands of people helping to deliver this project for Network Rail.

Do you have a message for young women or girls who love STEM?

Don't be afraid to embark on a career in this industry. I appreciate it is predominantly male. That can be daunting, but believe me, the industry is crying out for us. The way we think, our emotional intelligence, approach to work, and unique leadership skills are missing in senior roles. As a result, if you want it, you can have it. Reach for the stars because anything is possible in STEM!

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