I have always envied those who feel drawn to a particular profession from a young age – I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do after I graduated from university with a degree in Business Studies. After a number of years in recruitment across a variety of industries, I hopped around in a few temporary administrative jobs, but I wasn’t happy – I hadn’t found my niche.
When a friend spotted an advert for a technical role in the automotive industry, I was convinced I didn’t have the skills they were looking for – no engineering qualifications, no technical background, never worn safety shoes – but my friend persisted, and I reluctantly sent off my CV. I was amazed to be invited for an interview and offered the job on the spot. My Jaguar Land Rover journey had begun.
Interesting point of note: I was good at maths and sciences at school, consistently scoring 75% and above in exams. Even as recently as the late 1980s, when I sat my GCSEs, it was never suggested by any of my teachers that I consider engineering as a career. Not once… If I had been a boy, one wonders if things might have been different, but I’ll never know. I hope there has been a significant improvement in this area since then.
Solihull first impressions
Anyway, back to JLR in 2004, at Solihull assembly plant. My position was in the Body-in-White Engineering Department, facilitating the change control process and managing the team’s engineering issue database. I had a lot to learn.
On my first day, kitted out with white coat, safety shoes and plastic safety glasses, I was treated to a guided tour of the Body Shop. The T5 project incorporating L319 and L320 (the Discovery and Range Rover Sport models) was undergoing Hard Tool Functional Build at the time, and my colleague was explaining how the robots were programmed to weld together the BIW sub-assemblies.
‘Sorry, the what?’ I asked.
‘Body-in-White,’ he replied patiently. ‘It’s the metal structure of the car.’ I must have looked utterly confused because he continued on at some length. ‘If you take everything out from under the bonnet, take off the wheels and remove the chassis, then get inside the car and remove the dashboard, seats, windows, trim, carpets and finally, take out all the electrical wiring…’ I blinked, trying to imagine what he described, ‘then what’s left is the Body-in-White.’
Thankfully, it was all brought to life as I watched the robots welding sub-assemblies and larger machines creating the whole underbody, bodysides and doors. I must have looked like a small child at Christmas time, eyes agog, mouth gaping open. Like I said, it was a steep learning curve.
A feeling of pride
As I drove out of the site onto Damson Lane that evening, I passed an area where finished vehicles were being loaded onto transporters and taken to dealerships. I shall never forget the profound sense of pride I felt, knowing that I would be contributing to cars just like them in the weeks and months to come. I had never been in a job like it before, never been able to measure my hard work in something so tangible.
The next few months of my working life consisted of many spreadsheets peppered with abbreviations and acronyms, almost like another language. However, despite being the only female in the team, I was never made to feel daft for asking what things meant, and that magic of my first day never left me.
My next contract began just a couple of years later, this time in BIW Advanced Manufacturing Engineering. Having spent time at Solihull and Gaydon, I was now based at Whitley, Coventry and Castle Bromwich, working with the line builders and our AME Engineers to install a new production line for the X351 project, the Jaguar XJ.
One of few women in the industry
This time, I was one of two women in the team. My colleague was a young Project Engineer, not long out of university, and I remember asking her whether she felt odd being the only female engineer in the department.
‘To be honest, I don’t really think about it much,’ she replied. ‘We’re all way too busy for it to ever become an issue. I just rock up and do the job.’
Fair enough, I thought.
In the spring of 2009, along with many other contractors and a few salaried staff, my contract was discontinued as a result of the global economic downturn. The entire car industry was suffering, and no one was recruiting. Luckily, JLR was saved from the mire by Tata Motors, and recruitment began again. By the summer of the same year, I was offered my third contract with the firm, one that turned out to be by far the most significant.
A change of perspective
This time, I had secured a role in the Vehicle Engineering & Attributes Department (VE&A). Rather than engineering and delivering physical parts to a project, VE&A was involved in viewing the vehicle from the customers’ perspective, by ensuring the cars met with expectations in terms of off-road capability, engine performance and characteristics, safety features, ride comfort and noise, and so on. It was a fascinating time in my career. I learned about the testing and development cycles of the prototype vehicles and liaised with the attribute teams regularly to ensure their development cars were built to the correct specifications.
One memorable day in 2013 was spent visiting Dunsfold Motors in Surrey, where they keep an admirable collection of Land Rovers, some of which are unique. It’s an enthusiast’s dream, that place. Our purpose that day was to deliver to their collection a development vehicle that had been used firstly for the L405 all-new Range Rover, and then again for the L494 all-new Range Rover Sport (see image at the top of the page).
Noticeably, during my time in Vehicle Engineering, the number of women joining the team increased dramatically, especially among the graduate intake, which was great to see. I even worked briefly for a female senior manager at one point. However, progress was slow – I spoke to several women who found it tricky to juggle the demands of a young family with the long hours expected and often considerable commuting distances for members of project teams who got moved around between sites. It seems the industry has a long way to go with regards to flexible working practices.
Advice for women Engineers: go for it!
Gradually, as time went on, my heart was being drawn to more creative pursuits. By 2016, I had already published several short story anthologies and a novella in my spare time, and I wanted to dedicate more time to my flourishing editing and proofreading business, so I ramped up the work to the point where, in 2018, I hung up my safety shoes and left JLR for good.
I do look back with fond memories of my time at Jaguar Land Rover. I feel privileged to have been involved in engineering some of the world’s most beautiful and capable cars. In this digital age, when so many of our working lives exist only in the realm of the cloud, there’s something wonderfully satisfying about creating objects.
I also think it has been important to have been a witness to the changes in attracting more women to engineering. If I may offer some advice to any women reading this: don’t think your non-engineering degree is a barrier to joining the car industry, and don’t be afraid to join this slow-moving revolution. We’re getting there!
You can find out more about Liz’s creative writing pursuits, as well as her growing collection of published works, on her website.
If you were at the coalface and have a tale to share, please do get in touch!
- I was there : Jaguar Land Rover Engineering – an unexpected journey - 17 September 2022