My Career Transition Journey_ Manufacturing Engineer to HR Consultant_BLOG IMAGE

My Career Transition Journey: Manufacturing Engineer to HR Consultant

A survey by Investec found more than half of Brits are planning to change career in the next five years. Gone are the days of staying in one career your whole working life.

Whether voluntary or otherwise, we are now more likely to change careers. In fact, it is wise to plan for five careers in a lifetime.

In this blog, I will tell you how I moved from being a Manufacturing Engineer to an HR Consultant.

Early childhood influences

Being brought up on a farm in Angus, Scotland and surrounded by animals, my very first career aspiration was to be a vet. That was until we had our family dog put down and I thought, “No, I can’t do this day in, day out”.

Helping out on the farm was my first experience of working. I’d spend my school holidays picking berries, rouging barley for wild oats, working on the back of the tatty (potato) harvester, or working in the tatty grading shed.

Even before then, I spent my childhood sitting on the back sill of my dad’s tractor while he was sowing barley, or in the cab of the combine when he was harvesting it. These experiences instilled in me an interest in how food got from the fields to our plates. And I saw first-hand every day how hard farmers work!

My interest became broader, with an increasing passion for manufacturing and engineering. For instance, I was always the one who would set up the TV remote or to fix a broken electronic. So when the time came to decide on my first degree, I studied Manufacturing Sciences and Engineering with Management at University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

My degree in engineering was very comprehensive, accredited by the IMechE and the IEEE, and allowing me to gain a diploma in Management as part of the course. At the end of my studies, I finished with an MEng and with a solid understanding of multiple areas of engineering such as electrical/electronics, mechanical, manufacturing engineering and product design. I was lucky to have a wide variety of options after graduating.

Work experience in engineering

During my studies, I worked every summer in roles related to my degree. Daks Simpson was my first summer placement. The luxury fashion brand was established in 1894 and make high-end clothing. This was my first office job where I looked after supply chain and materials coming into the factory.

My time at Daks was right at the cusp of when computers came in so I was manually cross-checking different pieces of paper to tick off orders that had come in and things like that!

The following summer, I worked at Polaroid in the factory where they make sunglasses calibrating lens machines — my first manufacturing role. 

I also did a placement at a company called Pilkington Optronics that is now part of ThalesIn this role, I was responsible for testing military laser range finding machines, making sure they still operated in a variety of conditions, such as when it was freezing, or extremely hot, or when they were dropped from height.

My master’s project and dissertation was on the implementation of reliability centred maintenance. As part of that, I spent 18 months with Diageo as a Reliability Engineer in Shieldhall, Glasgow. I worked in the factory where they produce Johnny Walker, amongst other things.

A (unexpected) shift in roles

After graduation, I joined Mars as part of its Management Development Program. It was a huge opportunity for the 9 of us that were selected out of the thousands of applications.

Mars valued a breadth of experience so they would regularly move very senior people across functions. For instance, the HR Director might become Head of Operations and the Finance Director might move into Sales.

Mars believes that leadership skills are transferable. The rationale is that if you have a good team and you are able to learn quickly, the moves serve the company and the staff very well. The Management Development Program echoed these beliefs.

Therefore, I went on to do some time in trade marketing in the Drinks division. Then I moved to a role in engineering, responsible for ensuring raw materials were available to reduce downtime in the process. While in this role, I was in my 20s managing a team of seven men in their 50s. Let’s just say I made a lot of mistakes in this role and I learned more about how not to manage people.

HR was my next role at Mars, responsible for one of the confectionary factories in Slough. My plan after this role was to become a Shift Manager and get more involved in the manufacturing operations. But these plans coincided with a bad episode of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and the shift patterns required in the role would have aggravated things for me. At that point, I made the decision to stay in HR – I was really enjoying it anyway!

Establishing an HR Career

My move into HR happened early in my career. I was about 22. While at Mars, I went on to undertake several HR positions — moving from more generalist roles where I worked closely with the business to develop the strategy as an HR business partner on a broader leadership team, to specialist roles such as talent management and learning and development.

After six years, I moved to RBS as a Talent & Engagement Manager based in the City of London. In this role, I was responsible for talent processes, succession planning and implementing employee surveys. 

Throughout my HR career, I’ve continued to make this switch between specialist and generalist roles. Being a specialist kept me at the forefront of what’s new in areas like learning and development, having an external view of trends. But staying too long in those roles meant I risked being too far removed from what’s really going on in the business.

Hence, I went back and forth between these types of roles. I discovered that it made me better each time because I’d enter a business role with a broader understanding of specialist areas. In specialist roles, I have a good grasp of how my area of expertise will impact the wider business and the employees at the heart of it.

Growing in senior HR roles

In 2009, I moved to Centrica in Windsor as Group Head of Talent, a newly created role. I was part of pioneering how we structured talent management, leadership development and performance management in the organisation.

The role gave me exposure to the executive board and senior leaders within businesses and helped me develop strong influencing skills at all levels.

During that time, I also led the people work stream of a £30 million transformation and cost reduction program. Following this, I took on the role as Head of HR for Customer Services in British Gas, responsible for a team of business partners and specialists who supported the contact centres around the UK.

I learned through managing a number of redundancy processes how to build trust and engagement with employees post-redundancy. At Mars, for instance, we closed down the factory I supported with several hundred redundancies. I again experienced redundancy processes at RBS (having moved to a business HR role just before the financial crisis) and at Centrica following the transformation programme.

In manufacturing, we are always focused on being more effective, efficient, reducing costs, increasing productivity and making people’s lives easier. These commercial drivers have filtered into how I work with my clients so I try to find ways to help businesses to be more effective, whether the economy is good or bad, and I always focus on the outcomes and benefits of my services.

Going out on my own

My family and I subsequently moved to Aberdeen in 2012 due to one of my parents being ill and whilst I was on maternity leave with my son. There was an opportunity to go back to Centrica but I decided to launch my own HR consultancy, GT Limited, in 2013.

I started out working 2 days a week and gradually built that up. I’ve adapted to the changing market and reviewed my service offerings accordingly. The core offerings at GT Limited are:

  • Conflict resolution
  • Leadership and team development
  • HR consultancy

I continually stretch myself through the work I take on at GT Limited. This year makes it 5 years since I started my business and nearly 20 years since my first full-time HR role. I’m particularly grateful to one of my managers at Mars, Sue Swanborough, who gave me that opportunity, as well for her coaching and for being a leadership role model.

4 helpful tips for making your career transition

If you are going through a career transition or considering making a change, here are some helpful tips:

  • Be clear about what your priorities are. What is important to you? Is it your health, family, making money or having more time for your hobbies?
  • Think about what you have enjoyed the most. What was it? In what type of career can you get that?
  • Build your network before you need it. Talk to people who have done something similar. How can you learn more about your new career path?
  • Take opportunities to do roles that you aspire to. Consider secondments. Use them as a way to learn what works for you and what doesn’t

Career transitions can be difficult and frustrating if you don’t have some guidance. Use your network as much as you can for support and try career coaching or mentoring to help smooth the transition.

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