Claire Hughes is chair of the Public Sector Division of Engineers Ireland. She graduated with a degree in civil, structural and environmental engineering from Trinity College Dublin in 2006. She is a senior executive engineer with Louth County Council, having previously worked for Meath, Monaghan and Offaly county councils. She lives in Co Monaghan.    

Claire Hughes.

1) When did you first become interested in engineering?  

All through secondary school I really had no idea what engineering was – I was studying physics for my Leaving Certificate and I had a brilliant teacher who used to invite former students back to speak with sixth-year students on their career choices.

I attended an all-girls secondary school and I remember one class in particular where a former student who had completed an engineering course was invited back to speak to our class.

She made such an impact on our class that out of the six students that made up the physics class, I think at least three of us went on to study engineering.

She had outlined that at the crux of engineering was the basic skill of problem solving and I loved to spend hours working on maths problems throughout my school years, so I put my faith in applying for an engineering course in Trinity College Dublin and the rest, they say, is history!

Once I had qualified, I knew that I wanted to become involved in local government and working in the public sector, so after six months of site work, I started working in Monaghan County Council.

A wastewater treatment plant in Co Louth.

From there, I have also worked in Offaly County Council, Meath County Council and now, Louth County Council. I have worked across all departments in local authorities, and it really is such a wide and varied career.

I get to manage such interesting projects ranging from streetscape enhancements to road restoration works, the provision of new build social housing, the management and upgrade of water and wastewater infrastructure and dealing with environmental issues while also getting to see the difference that these works make on the wider community and local areas. I can guarantee that a career in a local authority will never be boring, and each day brings new challenges.

2) Who were the mentors who helped you on your way?

I worked with two fantastic senior engineers while I was employed in Offaly County Council: Paul Devaney and Charlie McCarthy who were not only my line managers but also proved to be fantastic mentors.

I was employed as an assistant engineer during my time in Offaly County Council and this is a fantastic point in your local authority career to be moulded into an engineer with good habits on procurement, project management and management of project teams.

Under their guidance, I learnt to properly plan works and not just dive in two feet first! I gained such confidence and knowledge under their management that eventually, I was given more and more responsibility which is the best way to keep learning and growing.

My public speaking experience at the time was minimal however they encouraged me to attend meetings and events, present works proposals, take questions, query contractors or rates and all of this has given me the confidence to undertake and manage larger public works projects.

They encouraged me to continue with postgraduate learning in order to gain more specialist knowledge and in turn, reflect this back into my work. Paul and Charlie were also active members of the Midlands Region of Engineers Ireland at the time and they both encouraged me to become involved in Engineers Ireland.

3) Your engineer hero, or the nearest you have to one?   

Structural engineer Peter Rice.

Peter Rice was an Irish structural engineer who worked on the design of the roof of the Sydney Opera House. This was a professional who lived in our lifetime and who has left such a legacy with this building – it is only when you see the structure in reality, that you really understand the significance of the roof and how all the shells fit into place.

4) What are your favourite engineering feats? 

Again, I think back to my trip to Australia in 2018 and my time in Sydney – aside from the aforementioned opera house, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is quite magnificent. I completed the bridge climb while I was there, and I really got to see all the elements of it up close – there are about six million hand-driven rivets holding the bridge together and it took almost eight years to complete. Looking down at the lanes of traffic going over it and taking in the panoramic view from the top – it is really something!

Sydney Harbour Bridge, Australia.

A bit closer to home, I tend to look around at buildings in my locality such as Monaghan cathedral, which was constructed between 1861 and 1891. Due to lack of funds, the design was scaled back – which I can only imagine as the country was coming off the back of the Famine.

The timber hammerbeam roof, the details in the sculpted stonework and the large rose window to the front are so admirable, especially when you realise just how long ago places like these were built and during a time when construction work was very manual in nature.

St Macartan's Cathedral, Monaghan.

5) What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering right now?

From a local authority perspective, addressing climate change and sustainability has become an important aspect of all public sector works – such as reducing our carbon footprint, encouraging a more circular economy in our construction projects, and eliminating overall production of waste.

Circularity in the built environment is extremely important to continue to address as every local authority in the country has targets for new build social and affordable housing and construction is one of the biggest attributers to waste and CO2 emissions.

There is so much to learn as local authority engineers on how we can improve on green building design, the use of recycled building materials, having more resource efficient methods of construction and extending the life of buildings through more smart and efficient maintenance techniques. I feel that the onus is on the public sector to lead by example on this.

6) What are your favourite book/s? And what are you currently reading?

Unfortunately, I don’t get much time for reading books any more, but the last book I read was Beyond the Tape by Dr Marie Cassidy – an interesting read giving an insight into a career very far removed from my own.

7) What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?

When I graduated from university, I assumed I had amassed all the engineering knowledge that I would ever need – I was most definitely proved very wrong on that! When you graduate from third level, you will have the basic knowledge that will be your foundation for your chosen specialism.

This will be your starting point from which the onus is on yourself to continuously self-assess and self-develop your skillset. I would recommend completing as much postgraduate training as you possibly can in the time between graduation from your undergraduate learning and settling down to manage a mortgage and family commitments.

Continuous postgraduate learning is essential in an engineering career as the sector develops so quickly and it is important to be able to keep up with all advancements and improvements.

8) What measures do we need to take to help improve the gender balance within the profession?

I came from an all-female secondary school where subject choices were quite constrained for the Leaving Certificate – I was very lucky to be able to study physics and chemistry.

There was no option in my school, however, to study applied maths, computer science, construction studies, technical drawing, technology or engineering – all of these Leaving Certificate subjects would have been a fantastic benefit to me in choosing my career path at the time and having a basic engineering knowledge when starting my third level education.

I feel that we should examine what subjects are available in all-girls secondary schools in general across the country, determine if there are constraints in students choosing engineering type subjects in these schools and establish how this can be rectified.

I think that the gender balance in the profession can be improved starting at the 'grassroots' stage – in secondary school, ensuring that all-female secondary schools have access to a greater amount of engineering subjects for their students.

9) Looking back over your career, is there any project, or particular time in your life, that stands out?

My time in the Housing Department of Meath County Council stands out the most – it was an extremely busy time with so many projects and tasks on at the one time. It is also a period of time that I remember learning so much about conditions of contract and procurement, the importance of record keeping and how to deal with legacy issues from previously completed works.

'My time in the Housing Department of Meath County Council stands out the most.'

I also got to see actual houses being constructed, adaptation works being completed on dwellings and people being allocated their new homes, so I got a real balance of the engineering work but, also, I got to see the direct influence my work can have on people’s lives. It was a very enjoyable period in my working life, and I worked with a great team of people which I will remember for the rest of my life. 

10) Is there any engineer you wish was better known?  

I would have to say that I feel that public sector engineers, in particular local authority engineers, quietly work in the background and the output of their works can be seen all around us in everyday life.

We all take for granted the roads we drive on, the water we drink, the public lights in our towns and villages, the disposal of our domestic household waste from our homes or access to fire and emergency services if ever needed.

We don’t think about the work that is done in the background to make these things possible or we don’t think about the people operating the water/wastewater treatment plants or designing safer road junctions or sections of roadways for us to use. All of this work is undertaken by local authority engineering staff, and it is crucial to outline the importance of the local authority engineer in our everyday lives. 

11) What is a typical day for you?

The one thing that I have learnt in all my years of working in county councils is that no two days are the same. On my commute to the office, I always try to plan out in my head what tasks I want to complete that day; however, anything from weather events, dealing with issues raised by members of the public or elected members, unexpected items arising during site works or a last-minute request for a report can always scupper those plans. Working in a local authority means that every day brings new and different challenges.

12) What are your favourite films/TV dramas?

I really enjoy watching films set during the Second World War or films based on historical true events. I always get more invested in films when I know that they are based on events that have happened in the past.  

13) What is the best piece of advice that you have ever been given?

To make decisions efficiently, not hastily. It can sometimes be very tempting to issue a response or decision on something if emotions are heightened or if under pressure to do so – I do my best now to think through all of the options, weigh up the pros and cons and then make a firm and final decision on something.

In previous roles, I had made some decisions that I came to regret but it is all part of the learning curve and I now recognise the importance of thinking something over thoroughly and getting all the facts together before issuing out the determination.

14) What do you do to relax?

Long walks on my own with my dog Bailey definitely help me to relax and switch off from the stresses of the previous working week. Your weekends are very precious free time, so I try to fit in as much outdoor time as possible.

Bailey with his owner, Claire.

Taking Bailey out to Rossmore Park in Monaghan, and watching him explore or swim in the lakes always brings a smile to my face. The cleaning out of my car afterwards, unfortunately is the only downside! Anybody who has owned a Labrador will know my pain!