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Insights You don’t need an engineering degree to work in engineering. Here’s why…

"I really value the variation in roles which Atkins offers. I am involved in decisions on which projects I am allocated to, allowing me to develop and use my skills where best suited."

Meet Sarah Merrick, senior project manager at Atkins, a member of the AtkinsRéalis Lavalin Group. She's a highly organized professional who joined us in 2020 after working in bid and project management for some of the UK's largest engineering, defence and security organizations. We appreciate how Sarah works with our clients, ensuring they receive maximum benefit from their projects, helping them to thrive and making sure they return to us again and again.

While project management is Sarah's primary role, she is also Programme Delivery lead for Atkins' People Excellence Programme. Working closely with leads from other Atkins Practices, Sarah helps ensure that our employees have access to the right tools and information so they can excel in their roles and develop within Atkins.

Photo of Sarah Merrick smiling towards the camera

What did you want to be when you left school?

I had absolutely no idea! I was very academically minded and enjoyed history. I was advised that history offered transferable skills, so I completed a BA. Still none-the-wiser, I completed my Masters, which I loved. I then worked as an archiving assistant and Freedom of Information officer for a few years, responding to requests under the then fairly new Freedom of Information Act.

I didn't find these roles fulfilling, and my dad, a consultant engineer, suggested moving into the bidding world. I spent the next 10 years as a bid advisor, bid writer and bid manager in several large engineering, defence and security organizations.

My history degree gave me the skills necessary to perform well in these roles: organization, writing persuasive arguments, understanding and interpreting large volumes of information, and receiving and responding to feedback. I also needed to develop new skills, including team leadership, stakeholder engagement, and financial and commercial acumen.

After 10 years, I felt the need for a new challenge and moved into an Agile project management role delivering software and then into other project management roles. Bid management and project management require very similar skill sets, and I now feel I can provide support across the whole business development and project management lifecycle. A valuable skill for most employers.

"Atkins's care and support for its people make it a great place to work, and contented people make for happy customers."

What keeps you at Atkins?

Firstly, Atkins’ commitment to its customers. Atkins trains all of its people in its Core Consultancy Skills Framework. This framework focuses on working with our customers to fully understand their needs, developing solutions that meet them and helping embed lasting change. As a result, Atkins provides real value to our customers, delivering solutions of which we can be proud.

Secondly, the people. I can't remember when I've worked with such a diverse range of people with so many varied specialisms and skills. It's always exciting to hear new perspectives and use these insights to deliver innovative solutions. Teamwork has taken on a new meaning since I joined, and I'm currently involved in an Innovation Tournament being run as part of one of our engineering frameworks. Every day, I am amazed by the unique perspective that each team member brings.

And finally, career development. Atkins has a clear and structured approach to development and promotion. We're all encouraged to undertake training and personal development to grow our careers in our chosen direction of travel. Guidance on gaining promotions is clear, and it's easy to move across the business to get new skills and experiences.

What do you do in your role?

As a senior project manager, I am responsible for implementing cyber security tools with one of our key clients. Working as part of a broader programme to improve our customer's cyber resilience, I can see how my project fits into the wider customer strategy. As a project manager, I need to identify and schedule our deliverables, report on progress, track risks and opportunities and work with our technical team to remove obstacles and balance time, cost and quality constraints.

But my role goes way beyond this. Excellent communication and stakeholder engagement skills are essential to liaise with the customer and their partners to ensure the project continues to meet their expectations.

I have been involved in writing the customer's business case to ensure the project receives ongoing funding. I also need to work closely with the wider stakeholder community and business change experts to ensure the tools meet end-users' needs. To achieve this, I've developed an understanding of business analysis processes.

In previous roles at Atkins, I've been responsible for managing the budget, governance, reporting and resource management of entire programmes. This was both challenging and rewarding, responding to last-minute requests from the customer and removing obstacles to ensure that project teams can deliver. In this role, I also used my past bidding experience to deliver proposals for contract extensions, supporting Atkins's continued delivery.

What advice would you give to someone who would LOVE a career at Atkins but comes from a background unrelated to construction or engineering?

You don't need to come from a construction or engineering background! The diverse range of skills and experiences makes Atkins what it is and allows us to deliver innovative solutions to our customers. I have a background in history, and my first bid advisor role was with an engineering consultancy. At that stage, I had no experience in bids or engineering, but I could organize people, develop persuasive arguments, interpret information and write.

"If you want to work for Atkins—and you really should—I would recommend understanding what Atkins does and working out how your skills and experience can add value. Projects are made up of individuals with different skills and experiences."

In my programme team alone, we have specialists in human factors, comms and engagement, business change, business analysis, finance, contract management, requirements analysis, account management and business development, programme and project management, and benefits management. The list goes on. Many of these talented people have no background in engineering or construction. You can join us by starting in one role and working towards another that interests you!

What is your team environment like?

I have two team environments—my line management team and my project team. Both are incredibly supportive and relaxed, and I feel that both provide a safe space to raise concerns, provide constructive challenges and seek reassurance.

My line manager gently pushes me to fulfil my potential, providing guidance along the way, and the team I line manage are inspirational. I'm always amazed at what they achieve. My project team are focused on supporting each other to deliver and continually improve our offering to the customer. It's a pressurized environment, but everyone works together to ensure we succeed.

How do you provide social value through what you do?

I’m also the project sponsor for Atkins's involvement with CSRN, a non-profit formed by a group of students from the University of Bristol to support UK charities affected by the lockdowns. The scheme has since expanded to help organizations around the world.

Several companies, including Atkins, provide expert advice and guidance to these aspiring young consultants, helping them deliver high-impact projects to charities and not-for-profit organizations. Our consultants share their knowledge and experience by upskilling and mentoring students and supporting CSRN's core team. Sarah is currently working on a bitesize training video offering the students an insight into Waterfall and Agile project management methodologies.

"Supporting the next generation of consultants is essential to Atkins's ability to thrive. I believe it's every organization's responsibility to support and add value to the world in which they operate."

Do you do much mentorship yourself?

I provide mentorship to the core Atkins team delivering support to CSRN. As a team of graduates and placement students, they are not only learning about project management, consultancy and the business world but also making important decisions about their futures.

They come to me with questions and discussion points, and I work with them to come up with the answers. Quite often, there's no right or wrong in these discussions. It's about asking questions to help them make decisions they can then take forward.

It's a great experience to support someone in this way, varying your approach depending on the individual and learning from them. I also mentor my line management team, who, while more experienced in business, often still need support on career direction or project issues.

Do you have a mentor?

I have one formal mentor helping me work on my career development. She's quite senior within Atkins and has been with the company for many years. Her insight and experience, along with the guidance she provides, have been invaluable. She's supported me in assessing where I want my career to go, increasing my confidence and understanding the value I bring.

"I don't think mentorship always has to be formal or long-term. I've also received some fantastic guidance from people I consider role models on a more ad hoc basis, as well as from more junior staff members."

Sarah is just one of our many talented employees, engineering a better future. Discover more about how women are thriving at Atkins.