Helen Warnock’s engineering career came as a surprise to her, having studied English literature before falling in love with the railway.
This International Women in Engineering Day, Helen, an infrastructure maintenance depot manager on the South East route, joined nine colleagues working in and supporting engineering to inspire girls and young women to explore dynamic and varied careers in engineering:
“For me, it is about the people.”
We talk to Helen about funfair rides, finding inspiration in the people around her and why now is the best time to pursue a career in engineering…
Do you remember the first thing you ever built?
A little seesaw. I used to make little funfair rides for my sisters… I’d got an old tricycle, I’d got a plank and worked out if you put it right in the middle it sorted of balanced and we’d take turns and had our own little seesaw.
What led you to join the railway?
I went to university and did degrees in English literature… I saw a job on the railway and thought I’d get a short-term job… but I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with working outside. It was totally different from anything I’d done before.
You just fall in love with it. You fall in love with the people, you fall in love with the fact that every day is different, you fall in love with the fact you get the chance to learn things. I was motivated by wanting to learn things. The railway gave me that – they sent me to college, to university to do engineering.
Which project are you most proud of?
A wheel timber at London Bridge… We had to do it from scratch. It was one of the first jobs where I did everything, from the surveying to specification to making sure all of the calculations were right, to going out with the team to deliver it.
Why is now the best time to be work in engineering?
Because of the sheer scale and opportunity that’s available out there. There’s been, even in my career… so much innovation. We’ve moved so far ahead with things like safety and the mechanics of how we do things. The opportunities to develop are huge, there are more schemes coming out onto the railway, whether you want to be involved in the digital side of things or mechanical side of things in renewals. It’s mind-blowing how much opportunity there is out there for everyone.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Everybody is different.
What advice would you give to a young person pursuing a career in engineering?
Don’t give up. The opportunities are there, the industries are crying out for good engineers. If you apply yourself… there’s so much opportunity to get out there.
What would you say to a young person who doesn’t think a career in engineering is for them?
A career in engineering is not often sold properly to them… working with big trains – that’s never really portrayed. We don’t do a fantastic job in selling the excitement, the comradery, the part where you get to see a project from beginning to end where you’re really part of delivering something, not just for yourself – for people, for passengers. It has such a wide impact on everything.
Why would you say STEM is interesting and exciting?
The thing that makes it interesting is how it’s applied, what you do, the people you meet, the impact you have. People see engineering as very focussed, that it’s not creative but actually, it is hugely a creative part of the industry.
You get to build things, you get to interact with lots and lots of different people form lots of different disciplines so it won’t be just the discipline you’re taught about in your engineering discipline. If you come in as a track person, you’ll have to liaise with [signals and telecoms], you’ll have to work with electrification ,you might want to talk to the geo-technical teams and you’ve got to make something work together – that is what makes engineering interesting.
Who is your inspiration?
It’s important to find pieces of inspiration in the people around you. I’ve got fantastic team leaders who work for me who are super inspiring… who really deliver the job; they do it really well.
What does the railway mean to you?
It’s fundamentally about the people in it… The thing that really keeps people in the industry is other people… It’s the comradery, that sense of family. In a way, that’s what the railway means to me. It’s something that’s much bigger than one individual or a single-discipline career… When you understand the enormity of what it does and you feel part of that, that is what the railway means to me.