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Insights Engineering better support for schools

Sarah Foster Senior Building Surveyor, Building Surveying Team – North East, Newcastle upon Tyne

As a Senior Building Surveyor for our world-leading project and programme management consultancy, AtkinsRéalis, Sarah Foster provides end-to-end support for education sector projects, such as performing vital building upkeep for schools.

“Our team works in the education sector, particularly on Condition Improvement Fund (CIF) projects. These are the projects where we are responsible for securing funding from a funding stream provided by the Department of Education (DfE), and thereafter manage the design and construction works on capital maintenance projects, such as replacement roof coverings and new boiler installations. This is a very typical project role for my team, and we would manage each project from application stage through to completion of the works.”

Sarah has always felt drawn towards the education sector and the idea of helping people through her work, which is why AtkinsRéalis was such a good fit for her career. As a strong leader in education services, AtkinsRéalis works with clients ranging from nurseries through to higher education to evolve their assets, to support teaching and learning and adapt to emerging sector challenges.

“Education was something I always felt very strongly about being involved with. In our household, we've got a strong link to education, my husband is a teacher, and I'm a school governor. So that was always important to me – to be able to help people succeed in their aspirations, but also to help people that support this.”

Some of Sarah’s proudest moments at AtkinsRéalis have arisen from this shared commitment to creating better outcomes for schools and their students.

“One of my proudest moments so far is that I've successfully secured millions of pounds worth of CIF funding four years in a row for schools we work with, maintaining my 100% success rate. And I know that they potentially wouldn't have got that vital funding to maintain their buildings if I hadn't acted on their behalf. I’m also particularly proud of a roofing project for John F Kennedy Primary School in Sunderland that we completed six weeks ahead of schedule – meaning less disruption for the children during the term time. My line manager also nominated me for an International Women in Engineering Day award in the performance category for my work with one of our academy trust clients.”

In her role, Sarah splits her time evenly between project management and more traditional building surveying activities, such as condition surveys, access audits and advising on building defects.

“As our role as Building Surveyors has progressed in the last decade or so, we're leaning more towards project management than my predecessors might have done. Traditionally, small-to-medium projects would have been project managed by an estates team, but because we have more overarching expertise in existing buildings, we’re able to bring those projects all the way from conception to completion.”

Knowing the typical activities that make up a modern building surveying role is something Sarah believes is important for people considering their career options. That’s why she advocates for getting stuck in and speaking to people in the role you want.

“You don’t get an idea of what a company or role is like unless you actually speak to the people that are there doing it. When I finished my maths degree, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I approached lots of different people asking for work experience, and when I eventually got to speak to AtkinsRéalis surveyors, theirs was the role that really struck home for me. I wouldn’t have known that it was the right role for me without those initial chats.”

Many people who work in the construction industry haven’t taken a direct route to get into their roles. In fact, AtkinsRéalis have many employees who come from a non-cognate background. That means they have no directly relevant experience, and no relevant degree. So, no matter your starting point, there are opportunities for you here.

“AtkinsRéalis gave me a chance, even though I had absolutely zero experience other than the hour I’d spent with their surveyors, but they saw my potential and that that I was switched on. In my case, I already had a degree, so they let me join the graduate scheme, but I’d started my conversion Master of Science (MSc) already otherwise I’d have been put through a further degree with the company.”

Sarah wants everyone to feel empowered to think about a career in construction. As part of her work with education sector clients, she offers career days on an ad-hoc basis to inspire students and give them insights into what it’s like to work in the construction industry.

“I’ve been invited to speak at an Ask the Expert event coming up that one of our clients has organised, and I've also been offering them the chance to do other things like site walks with students who are interested. I think it’s important to give all students these opportunities because I don’t want anyone to feel that they’re not good enough to take part.”

Although construction and engineering are historically male-dominated fields, AtkinsRéalis are working to continuously improve gender diversity and support women in the workplace. One of the ways Sarah has benefitted from this is through joining the Returners Programme – a scheme that helps women returning from maternity leave to re-accelerate their career with confidence.

“One of my lifelines when I was on maternity leave was to be kept in the loop. My line manager regularly caught up with me because he understood I needed something active to occupy my mind. When I came back, I joined the Returners Programme too. As part of that, there are several online modules to help you think about what your aims are and what you need from your manager to succeed, and some external coaching to ensure you feel well prepared for the next stage of your career.”

Join Sarah in Engineering better. Discover how at InsideAtkinsRéalis.