21 Jun 23 June 2021 LORNA BENNET, ORE CATAPULT – INWED SPECIAL!
Today, for International Women in Engineering Day 2021, we are delighted to feature Lorna Bennet, Project Engineer in the Operational Performance team at the UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult. As a true engineering hero, Lorna is working to make the offshore renewable energy industry safer, more efficient and cheaper, to provide more clean, green energy to the world. Lorna was awarded the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Women’s Engineering Society Prize in December 2018, and in 2019 was recognised as a WATC Rising Star in Science & Engineering and was a finalist for the Contribution to Skills Award at the Scottish Green Energy Awards.
In this case study she shares her career journey and its ups and downs, the skills she is bringing to an energy sector in transition and her advice for fellow women in engineering.
Tell us about your job
I am lucky to work with a wide range of organisations, researchers and technology developers across all areas of offshore wind, wave and tidal power generation to address industry challenges through technology innovation and research.
Projects range from supporting the development of robots that crawl along the surface of wind turbine blades 150 metres in the sky to new ways to use radar technology (invented in the 1880s) to measure, track and predict wave patterns for planning safe offshore operations, and working with academic researchers to improve the health and well-being of technicians travelling offshore.
Since August 2017 one of my key roles has been coordinating technology demonstrations and research projects on the 7MW offshore Levenmouth Demonstration wind turbine in Fife. Following a promotion last September, I am now leading the delivery of projects under the Energy Transition Alliance (ETA) in collaboration with OGTC, to transform the energy sector, accelerate the UK’s transition to net zero and ensure a secure source of power for the future.
I’m an avid STEM Ambassador and have driven ORE Catapult’s STEM engagement programme across Scotland.
What is your background?
I graduated in 2011 with a BEng honours in Product Design Engineering from the University of Glasgow and Glasgow School of Art. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the results I needed to join the PhD programme in Wind Energy Systems, which was a huge blow to my confidence and ambitions to become “Doctor Bennet”.
But I didn’t have much time to wallow in self-pity as I urgently had to find a job. I joined a small company designing offshore lifting and handling systems where I gained valuable experience as a Mechanical Design Engineer before I was headhunted for a job in the renewable energy industry with Pelamis Wave Power. My new manager was keen to support me becoming Chartered, so I took on the additional challenge of a master’s degree through a distance learning programme, MTEC.
However, another blow landed in November 2014 when Pelamis went into administration. With only three days’ warning we were made redundant, just four weeks before Christmas. It was a very difficult time, but I received incredible support from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE): financially through the support network to ensure that I could continue to pay my bills; and professionally by means of interview training and a CV review service. It significantly reduced the intense fear that I could have my power cut off in the depths of winter or, worst case, lose my home! I updated my CV, made it known to my professional network that I was looking for work and the calls started to roll in from recruiters.
By February 2015 I was starting a new job as a Performance Engineer for an aerospace consultancy. This is not a sector I had ever considered, and I learned a great deal. But my passion was in sustainability, and I seriously missed the energy of the renewables industry, so jumped at the chance to go on a three-month secondment to ORE Catapult in 2016. A few weeks into the secondment I was offered a permanent position and I was over the moon!
My studies had been on hold since the redundancy and ORE Catapult were keen to support me towards Chartership again. In July 2020, at a virtual graduation ceremony, I was awarded my MSc in Marine Technologies, with distinction.
Resilience, adaptability, problem-solving and communication have been the key skills I’ve needed during my career so far. I have experienced many uncontrollable changes and disappointments, but these have led to so many experiences I would not otherwise have had, including travelling the world with work – and I would not change it.
What has been your personal experience of climbing the career ladder? Have you encountered any bias and how did you deal with it?
On my first day in my first job, where I was one of only three women, I was told by my boss that I’d need to work extra hard to be taken seriously as a woman in engineering, especially by the guys in the workshop. In reality, it was the other way round; all my colleagues were incredibly supportive, encouraging and helpful, apart from him.
It was there that I discovered one of my key attributes – the ability to diffuse heated situations. My boss considered it cathartic and “motivating” to shout, but when I never shouted back, he seemed at a loss. Instead, I would calmly and diplomatically discuss a way forward.
I have worked hard to overcome my own insecurities and reservations and put myself out there. Despite hating public speaking, I have taken every opportunity to practise over the last few years and build confidence. I have been an unofficial mentor to many of my younger colleagues and have recently tried to take my own advice – I applied for promotion last year, rather than waiting for it to be offered, and was successful.
What skills do you think engineers bring to the energy transition?
I have always enjoyed puzzles and problem-solving. I see patterns and similarities, which in my current role with the Energy Transition Alliance really helps me support companies wanting to move into the offshore renewable energy sector and identify where their expertise lies.
Under the ETA I am currently involved in the development of new research opportunities including sustainable decommissioning, a Circular Economy for the Wind Sector, clean hydrogen, and co-location of offshore wind farms and CCUS infrastructure. This all involves working closely with cross-sectoral partners to find solutions that will pave the way to our collective net zero targets by 2050. Communication, collaboration and problem-solving are critical.
What kind of support have you found helpful in advancing your career?
I have always enjoyed learning from people, hearing their stories and experiences. I have never had a formal mentor, but sincerely appreciate the encouragement and advice I’ve received from colleagues and my network, such as the incredible support offered by the Women’s Engineering Society, where I am cluster coordinator in Scotland.
I am very glad I completed my MSc after a few years of work experience, particularly at ORE Catapult. I was able to fully appreciate the real-world applications of each module and cultivate a deeper understanding of the subjects.
Who are your ‘engineering heroes’?
The founders and members of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) who fought for women’s rights to work and contribute to society in any job that we choose and paved the way for future generations. They encouraged and supported women in their education and careers, campaigning for equality and radical change. I would not be able to do the job I love if it were not for their dedication and determination.
What advice would you give to aspiring women in the energy sector, and to female engineers in particular?
- Do it! The renewable energy sector is diverse and creative, it can literally take you anywhere and you can help change the world for the better.
- Every country in the world needs and wants professionals from the energy sector, so find what interests you and you could live and work anywhere on the planet.
- Volunteer as a STEM Ambassador. It is a great way to inspire young people and enthuse yourself too. It’s good fun, helps the next generation and is great for your own continued professional development (CPD).
What do you think about the current state of gender diversity in UK energy and opportunities for female engineers to progress?
I am hopeful for gender diversity in energy, particularly in the renewables sector. The Offshore Wind Sector Deal signed in 2019 sets an industry wide target for 30% women in the workforce by 2030 and the latest statistics show that wind power is ahead of most other STEM industries for gender diversity (though still way behind the target).
Diversity of all kinds – experience, knowledge, interest, background and expertise – will avoid group think and encourage innovation. It has been proven time and again, for example by McKinsey, that diverse groups are good for teams, individuals, business and profits.
Now the climate crisis has activated many young people and they aspire to work in an industry that is making a positive impact on the world. The renewable energy sector is therefore a magnet for passionate young people wanting to contribute to a bigger picture and make a difference.
If you’d like to connect with Lorna, she can be found on LinkedIn here.
If you’d like to be mentored by a leading woman in the energy sector, check out our mentoring scheme POWERful Connections and complete the application form here.