Bridging Communities: Public Sector Engineering in Focus

Engineers are having a meaningful impact across communities in Ireland through working in the public sector.

Today we hear from three professionals with extensive experience working within the public sector about the rewarding projects they have worked on and the career paths they have taken.

Our guests are Head of the National Building Control & Market Surveillance Office in Dublin and a fellow with Engineers Ireland Mairéad Phelan, Executive Engineer with Limerick City and County Council Fergal Timlin and Senior Executive Engineer with Louth County Council Claire Hughes.

After the introductory text, but before the podcast link, put in this line with hyperlink: Listen below or on your podcast player!


01:09 Public sector and private sector differences

02:15 Job fulfilment in public sector work

04:40 Time scales in public sector work

06:46 Working with members of the public

10:41 Advice for those looking to move into the public sector

12:06 Taking a step back from the business calculations

16:27 The variation of work in the public sector

19:02 Career progression in the public sector

26:58 Changing the perception of engineering gender stereotypes at school level


Claire Hughes has a degree in Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering from Trinity College Dublin in 2006, an MSc Eng in Fire Safety Engineering from University of Ulster in 2013 and Postgraduate Dip in Road & Transport Engineering (inaugural year of the course) from IT Sligo in 2017. Claire is over 17 years working in Local Authorities (Monaghan, Offaly, Meath and now Louth County Councils) across a number of Departments such as Housing Capital, Road Design, Operations, Water & Wastewater services and Environmental services. She is currently working in Louth County Council as a Senior Executive Engineer in Waste Management & Environment Department.


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Mairéad Phelan is Head of the National Building Control and Market Surveillance Office. A Chartered Engineer and Fellow of Engineers Ireland she was a Programme Manager with the Local Government Management Agency on national projects. Prior to this, she was Fingal County Council’s head of the Built Environment Inspectorate Division; preceded by Senior Engineer Road Safety, Transportation and Bridges Division. She spent 10 years as Municipal Town Engineer with Carlow County Council while also performing the role of Conservation Officer. Her career commenced with Consulting Engineering work on Major Water & Drainage Schemes. Mairéad is an Associate Lecturer with SETU Carlow and is passionate about promoting the construction of safe and healthy buildings and the sustainable reuse of our existing building stock. She was awarded the Civil Service Excellence and Innovation award in 2015.

She holds an MBA, a Diploma in Law, and a PG. Cert. in Governance, a PGDip in Highway & Geotechnical Engineering, a PGDip in Project Management, and a Cert in GDPR.


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Fergal has 13 years’ experience in civil/environmental engineering. He has amassed a large amount of experience in a wide range of Civil Engineering disciplines, such as the construction of roads and drainage infrastructure.

Fergal is currently a member of the Thomond Region Committee and the Civil Division Committee of Engineers Ireland. He is also the planning lead for the Construction Sector Circular Economy Roadmap Report .


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Looking for ways to explore or advance a career in the field of engineering? Visit Engineers Ireland to learn more about the many programs and resources on offer. 

Engineers Journal AMPLIFIED is produced by for Engineers Ireland.


The pressure is on you in the public sector, you're answerable to everybody in the general public and everything that you do in your work is under scrutiny. - Claire Hughes

I was able to improve the towns and the small villages that were in my area, and I can see where I improved the signage, the parks, the town, and putting in something simple like a basketball arena. I found it very, very rewarding working in local authorities. - Mairead Phelan

A lot of people have mixed views or mixed opinions about what working in a local authority is. It is such a fantastic and varied career. - Claire Hughes

There's times where I do need to step back from projects and stop looking at the big calculations and just remember that these small improvements have a dramatic change to people and are greatly welcomed. - Fergal Timlim

There is a very clear progressions layout  in place in local authorities. - Claire Hughes

I see myself as an engineer first and foremost, a problem solver and a designer. That's all I ever wanted to be, even as a child, but nobody ever told me that it was a totally male orientated profession  - Mairead Phelan

The simplest definition of an engineer is that we're just problem solvers. We need to explain that to the primary school students, and not that there's these gender assigned roles or stereotypes associated with engineering. We have to break them to actually get young women into engineering. - Fergal Timlin

Every child loves a brick to play with, every child loves Lego. I've never met a child that doesn't love the box that the stuff comes in. So why are we not bringing that along through the schools and teaching? - Mairead Phelan


For your convenience, we include an automated AI transcription

Dusty Rhodes  00:00

So how big is the difference between the private and public engineering sectors? We're about to find out.

Fergal Timlin 00:08

Like in the private sector, it can almost feel aggressive the way you're trying to approach your job. You're trying to gain as much experience as quickly as possible to kind of, I suppose establish yourself, make people know who you are. It's more transparent in the public sector. We can talk about the grades we're at, the wages we're at, and the steps of where we are at a particular grade.

Dusty Rhodes 00:29

Hello there, my name is Dusty Rhodes, and welcome to AMPLIFIED the Engineers Journal Podcast. Today we're taking a look at engineering in the public sector and hearing some brilliant stories from three professionals with extensive experience in the area. Joining us are the head of the National Building Control and Market Surveillance office in Dublin and a fellow with Engineers Ireland Mairéad Phelan, Mairéad how are you? Thank you for having me. Executive Engineer with Limerick city and county council. Fergal Timlin is also joining us how are you doin, Fergal? Good, dusty, how are you? And Senior Executive Engineer with Louth County Council Claire Hughes is with as well. Thanks for joining us, Claire.

Claire Hughes 01:07

And good morning dusty.

Dusty Rhodes 01:09

Claire, can I start off with you by asking how does engineering work differ in the public sector?

Claire Hughes 01:16

Well, the pressure is on you in the public sector in terms of you being answerable to everybody in the general public. And everything that you do in your work is under scrutiny, you have to obviously get permission to do standard roadwork schemes, or if you're going to build houses, you have to go and get, go through public consultation and make sure that everybody is all fair with everything that you're planning and proposing to do. So I feel you're very much more answerable when you're in the public sector, because it is the public purse, and it's public spending money. So you have to make sure that you're doing it correctly, and obviously doing it to the right specifications and standards as well. So you're definitely under more scrutiny on the public end of it, and the private end of it as well. It's a different kind of pressure that's on you when you're working in the private sector. Again, you have to produce, you're under much more demand. And again, it's a different kind of scrutiny than as well, like, you know, we're not going to obviously produce something that's not workable or not functional. So it is a different kind of pressure, but it's still pressure all the same in both ends of it.

Dusty Rhodes 02:15

And you're answering to the public all the time, of course, that everybody has an opinion, and when you do that large. Yeah, absolutely. Right. Can I ask you your point of view on public sector work because it is contributing positively to communities? Do you think that that adds kind of a level of fulfilment to your job or job satisfaction?

Mairéad Phelan 02:36

Well, it did when I started off in Nicosia doors and partners building large water and sewage works which was, you know, quite intensive work design, oversight, and huge monies. Then I went to the local authorities in Kerala county council. My work was as an area engineer. And for 10 years I worked as an area engineer and he also worked as a Conservation Officer. So they work in the local authority as actually wonderful and fulfilling in that, as an area engineer, I'd over half the county, I had all the responsibility for the roads, the water services, the storage works, the town renewal, the urban renewal, so I was the 140, the road men, the lollipop ladies, this school, the school traffic systems, and I was a social worker, I was an area engineer, I was the designer surface dressing the local town engineer to the town councils when they were there, the local area engineer to the municipal authorities. As such, I had very good autonomy, I was able to do a lot of urban design schemes or urban renewal schemes. So as part of my roadworks schemes and my yulara the water and sewerage maintenance and operation, I was also able to improve the towns, the small towns, and the small villages that were in my area. And even today, over 25 years later, they invite me back to little openings for their community development works and everything. I can see where I improved the signage, the parks, the town parks that are designed by putting in something simple like a basketball arena as part of my roadworks and they work in the local authority. You can do as much as you want to give as much or you can just do the basic roads and water services and everything. So I found it very, very rewarding that piece of my early life and local authorities.

Dusty Rhodes 04:40

Burger we were chatting just before we came on about kind of public versus private and I was saying that I did 15 years of public service work with Artie and my experience there is that it can take longer to go from having an idea to something actually happening because there's so many levels to go through. That's broadcasting, is this the same with public service engineering?

Fergal Timlin 05:02

Depends on the scale of the project. Like I, when I was with Punch consulting, we worked on the mixed-use development up in Galway. Now I won't give details, but it was worth about a quarter billion. And at the end of the day like, it's the project that started back before the last recession got to put the ground, then there's a whole lot investigation works in terms of looking at the structure of the pre-existing building itself, making sure it was actually usable. And then we have the whole issue with like going through planning and onboard knowledge, appeals and actually getting that over the line. So like, realistically, even from the private side of things when it comes to like planning, and we said claim your design and everything else, it can take up to three or four years to actually get the planning secured, to actually construct something, the public sector is exactly the same, we go through the same process involved like the same, I suppose, transparency, when it comes to members of the public, the difference for us is that I suppose we are looking at the fact that we can do improvements, not just within a specific project, we're not squared off like a client who's basically trying to, I want to achieve x by doing this. And it's completely focused on himself. Whereas the public, we're basically saying, Look, while I'm doing this, I need to look into the boundary walls, I need to look into the pre-existing surface water and foul drainage, I need to look into the water mains, the air airlines, I basically need to look into what we can do if I'm going into the middle of a town and I'm tearing it up, I get one clean opportunity to talk with everyone say like, let's bring it all in terms of parks, environment and everything else. So that we actually end up with something that people have to live with for the next 1520 3040 50 years. So you want them to be happy and proud of the placemaking. We've done with them. In this particular example.

Dusty Rhodes 06:46

And I asked you all about public servants' work because it's very clear from what you are saying that, you know, the public is a much bigger boss to deal with. And you've got to think a lot wider than you would on say a singular private project. But projects in the public realm can often disrupt public life and make the general public kind of cranky, do you feel that there was a little bit more understanding of what it is that you're trying to achieve?

Claire Hughes 07:13

One project I worked on in Tullamore was the construction of footbridges over the Grand Canal and Tullamore and the construction of a boardwalk. And it was a very interesting project. And it was a fantastic idea. For the time of Tullamore, it was going to give access for different parts of the time directly into the town centre. Everything was fantastic in theory. And when it came to actual construction on site, the number of complaints, we actually had to stop the work at one stage because of the number of complaints that were coming in and coming in through elected representatives. I suppose at the time, the best way was we opened the doors in the town hall and make everything we'd already done our part here and our public consultation prior to this. But when it came to actually being on the ground and the disruption to people's lives, I think the message kind of was lost in translation. So we opened the doors in the town hall and we invited people to come in and we met with different groups and explained this as this phase of work, this street will be closed off for this, this traffic management will be put in place for this. But let's look at the bigger picture here. Let's look at what the finished product is going to be. So that project finished, let's say 10 years ago. And now it was recently in the time they're about a month or two ago. And the number of people that use those bridges, and they're fully accessible to everybody. It cuts off a massive amount of time for people travelling into the town centre on foot, which is what we all want to do. We want to get people out on their feet, out walking into town and it's all about active travel. No. So it's getting people and bringing the public along with you to see the bigger picture. Yes, there is disruption to your lives at the moment. There are delays, there are road closures, and there is what there is, but looking at the bigger picture and what will actually be there at the end of a project, getting people to see that then as well is just as important.

Dusty Rhodes 08:53

You've also worked on loads of other projects, Claire, that was a wastewater project you worked on in Burr, I've done if you want to talk about that, or maybe one of the housing schemes that you've worked on which would be your favourite.

Claire Hughes 09:05

Yeah, like Maria, I suppose I cut my teeth on the water and wastewater end of things and working in kind of Councillors. But I suppose one time that I look back at was the two years that I spent in this kind of council in the housing construction team that was there. So I was there from January 2021 to just earlier this year. And an extremely busy department everyone knows what the story is with housing at the moment the pressure that is on every country kinds of to deliver new housing units in whatever manner that they are going to deliver them whether it's through direct construction, purchasing, through approved housing bodies, etc. So the two years that I worked there, there were the busiest two years of my working life, but I look back on it with such pleasure and happiness because I grew as an engineer, I got to see the direct effects of what I was doing. In my day-to-day work. I got to see people actually moving into houses and giving people keys to their houses. And I suppose That was that's one end of things that you get in the public sector, and particularly in local authorities, you actually get to see the direct influence that your work as an engineer has on the local community. So it was a fantastic learning experience for me, dealing with contractors dealing with massive projects and massive budgets, dealing with all sorts of people dealing with members of the public, again, that are obviously maybe disgruntled with regards to what you're proposing to do. And it might be a contentious project, or you're building on what you're proposing to do. But at the end of the day, when you go back and look at a finished product, and see how it fits in with the community, and actually see people coming off of social housing lists that have been on a social housing list for many, many years, it definitely makes you feel very happy about your work.

Dusty Rhodes 10:41

Tell me, Claire, what kind of advice would you have for somebody who's looking to begin their career in the public sector?

Claire Hughes 10:47

I speak to a lot of people who are starting out and making decisions in their careers after maybe, let's say, doing their undergraduate degree in engineering. Starting in a local authority, a lot of people probably may have mixed views or mixed opinions about what working in a local authority is. It is such a fantastic and varied career. I've worked in local authorities for over 17 years, I did six months in the private sector. However, I always knew I wanted to work in the public sector. So I've been working with clients since ever since. My advice is that coming in as an undergraduate, you think you know everything in life, we all think at 22 or 23, we know everything in life. But you'd go on to you've got the bare essentials of knowledge and engineering when you graduate from college, you go into local authorities, and you are moulded into a very well rounded engineer with a great broad knowledge, you get to work with a wide variety of people and your people skills become so developed, you get to develop your management skills and your leadership skills and working as well. There are fantastic graduate programs that will take you in and you get to work, as I said, across housing, water, wastewater, road design, face making all these different departments that are in kind of clients. And so I can guarantee that it will never be a boring career. It's very, very unexciting, and it is what you make of it every career is what you make of it.

Dusty Rhodes 12:06

Can I ask you also about projects that you've worked on in the past? Is there any one that you're particularly proud of?

Fergal Timlin 12:13

I suppose the one that I'm currently working on that we're heading out to tender on is the Abbeyfield public grand scheme. It's a national road running through the heart of every field, which the 21 basically connects Kerry to Limerick. So you get a significant amount of traffic there every day, I suppose one of the feelings that we do when you work inside the park service is that when you're looking at your towns or villages and such, and you want to get speaking with people so that they don't feel like they're getting left behind or be feeling, I think there was a kind of a feeling that they're starting to get a little bit left behind. Now, there's a myriad of issues here in terms of social issues, and cultural and economic issues going on in the background. But we were finding that basically, a lot of the younger generation was moving on to every field, and moving into the cities or moving abroad, which as you know, we all grew wings at one stage, we all left so and so I suppose some of the buildings, some of the commercial buildings start starting to kind of shut off shut her up. So I think we're looking at this as kind of an opportunity for the city and county council to actually put John's capital investment into the field, to change it from it's a true road associated with the national road into a place of its own making a place that I suppose people can stop off and do a little bit of a sharp and take a break charge a character for a cup of coffee, kind of peruse the streets, you know. So there's it's a significant significant investment. And it's over the course of nearly 1.5 kilometres, which is basically the town itself. What you're saying thereby meeting the people, it was amazing to kind of slowly but surely speak with the individuals on the street. We also have like technical advisory groups that would say like the Abbeyfield Community Account Council, so we actually do a lot of engaging with the public that I think people sometimes don't see. And I think that's what happens when when you're looking in when you're looking in and say like, look, they're the council's jumping in to plow something into the ground. They haven't spoken to anyone they haven't inferred. There has been significant conversation every step of the way to make sure that they're happy with everything that we're providing.

Dusty Rhodes 14:06

Can I ask after doing all of that, then what takeaways did you get from talking to people that changed the way you think?

Fergal Timlin 14:12

I suppose sometimes we forget to like, I'm looking at his drawings and specifications. And I'm looking at kind of the work schedules, and I suppose engaged with consultants, and it's constant like this is something that's pouring through my head all the time. I suppose in the engineering world, what we call shaving time, is when I wake up in the morning, and I kind of have a quick shave. There are problems that I'm going through, that I'm trying to resolve so that when I walk into work, I can say, right, this is how we're going to face this. Like meeting people. Sometimes we do forget that they don't necessarily have the same kind of base of knowledge that we're jumping into it. So we're kind of saying like, this is what we're doing. These are the figures that line up for what we want to do. Here are the calculations behind everything that we're doing. And that's all well and good. But not everyone you meet wants to go through that the minutia wants to go down to the piecemeal justification shouldn't cost estimates that come into all of this? Sometimes it just wants to know like, what is this, like for the people who live on this particular street? There's a community of us who live in 10 houses on this side of the road. We've been a community here for the last 40 years. What is what is it you're trying to achieve? And well, how does it help us? It's even tiny little things like I remember, we were looking at a particular section of road, and we put in a pedestrian crossing, and we moved to a pedestrian crossing a couple of times. And we finally found that we just put it outside the pharmacy. And I was going down, I was kind of having a word with people here about the footpath upgrades and the different kinds of I supposed to Landscaping we're doing, and it completely jumped off the page. And every time oh my god, we've been looking for this pedestrian crossing for 20 years. Oh, my God, it's finally here thank God Council stepped in and gave us a pedestrian crossing, and the pedestrian crossing, I was looking at it from roads, do you know a road safety point of view, I was looking from a health and safety point of view. And I knew that there was a desire line there. But like I didn't stop to say like, well, how does this benefit these people in this particular role? It's like and then that there's they're so happy and so engaged, see this, like, you could have told them you're painting do the street green, they would have accepted as long as they got the pedestrian crossing to go with it like so I suppose there are times where I do need to step back a small bit from the projects I'm looking at and stop looking at the big calculations. And I suppose just remember that when I meet the people on site, there are just the little bits and pieces the small improvements that do have a dramatic change to people and are greatly welcomed.

Dusty Rhodes 16:27

Mairead, in your experience, these stories that Fergal and Claire are sharing, do they resonate with you?

Mairéad Phelan 16:32

Yeah, I've been involved in everything from water sewerage to roads, to community development to conservation to designing play areas. So I've had kind of a long career at this stage. And I suppose the big and the small and it brings me to mind when I was an area engineer and had a derelict site in a little village. And a pair of cottages called the weavers cottages and they were quite derelict, there was a lot of rubbish around them and everything else. So as opposed to knocking them down, I did a bit of research on them got a conservation grant, put the two of them back into use, and this area beside it, which was also derelict, I also got money from the Department of Housing and built two local authority houses that actually complemented and match the old style of the weavers cottages. So I was able to house two families and clean an area and also provide a tourist attraction and tourist immunity in that village and looked at weaving and designing and got a local craftsman to design a spinning wheel and a loom which is now used. So engineering is so varied, and then you can take them to go into Fingal and be involved in the M 50 Motorway design and doing the Coolock interchange rehabilitation works and Rathcoole bridge together. So really, I suppose the way I look at it is our work as public servants, servants of the people making life better everywhere we go by using our innovative design and problem-solving skills to actually make life better. And UK that is in itself is very rewarding. And during the boom times, I was often asked why didn't I go and get a job and loads of money. And I think the fulfilment of actually using your design your innovation, problem-solving skills, to actually do the small things really well and make life very much better or do huge, big M 50. Radical, they're they're huge shops, it can be so varied, and you're not confined to one thing and community engagement, what the people want what communities want, and how you can deliver it and solve that problem. And sometimes you are there and it's like you're looking at the really the wider thing. So you have at your hands at different service delivery areas that you can access to actually bring a project to completion without having to go back out again and dig up the road again.

Dusty Rhodes 19:02

Sounds like it is very rewarding. And it's coming across very clearly from all of you that it is incredibly rewarding work and you can actually walk around in your locality to go I helped improve that. I and you can see people enjoying the improvements. But can I ask you just kind of about yourselves and your own careers and promotion because you know, we all want to move open. We want to improve and careers. And I just want to ask you about that. Claire, you've got 17 years of experience with local authorities. What does career progression look like in the public sector?

Claire Hughes 19:31

Well, there are different grades that you sort of work in. So you come in as a graduate I started as a graduate, and then I moved to an African Council as an assistant engineer. Then I moved back to Monterey County Council as an executive and then I went to meet as a senior executive and load now senior executive again. So there is progression. Very clear progressions laid out there in place and local authorities. You know, you come in and you have to be moulded into a good local authority engineer. You can't just jump in and expect to be in management or leaders from day one, that takes a bit of time, you have to cut your teeth, and you have to get the knowledge, not just the technical knowledge, the knowledge of dealing with members of the public dealing with the statutory processes that are in place, dealing with your fellow colleagues. And the way that that works is you need to give yourself time, but to have the opportunities for career progression is there, it's there for the taking for everybody. And that goes for any career, but particularly in local authorities as well. It's a very clear sort of layout of how you can progress your own career. And if you are hungry for it, and you're hungry to learn, the opportunities are there for you.

Dusty Rhodes 20:35

Forgive, you've got a bit of a taste of both moving up the ladder, do you find that kind of you know, more structured way of climbing up the the various scales is better in the public service? Or did you kind of prefer the more promotional side of things with private?

Fergal Timlin 20:51

Look, I suppose like in the private sector, it can almost feel aggressive, the way you're trying to approach your job, you're trying to get gain as much experience as quickly as possible to kind of I suppose establish yourself, make people know who you are. You're always looking for the biggest possible schemes with the biggest names so that you kind of like when you come back to your company, you're like, Okay, I've done two years of this. Now, I want to be technical director, bang, I've done 10 years this now I want to be director, you're constantly kind of you're you're pushing yourself all the time, in the public service. When it comes down to it. Yes, there is a scene taken to say that you have the experience. And you've gone through these different projects. And you've kind of, I suppose, looked at the different structures involved when it comes to public procurement itself. Now, that's a big thing that you do not do. In the private sector. There's a whole host of procurement guidelines and such where you have to build up quite a repertoire of information before you kind of make your way through the myriad of procurement itself. But I suppose it's it's more transparent in the public sector, I'll be honest with you, like we can talk about the grades we're at the wages we're at, and the steps of where we are at our particular grades, it's much more open to like you're not afraid of a topic, your wages, your colleagues. And when you look at the terms of the kind of advancing yourself, you know that there are interviews going to come up, you look at what they're looking for, in terms of experience, you apply for the jobs, a lot of what we do ticketing, once it gets to kind of senior exec kind of grades and up, you're doing a true pass anyway, which is a centralised body open Dublin. So you know that when people are assessing you and looking at you, they're looking at the merits of who you are and your experience and what you've achieved throughout your career. Whereas in the private sector, it can be a little bit more cultural in terms of the politics that may be taking place in the background that may not be spoken about as openly as we're willing to say.

Dusty Rhodes 22:31

Ah, interesting. So there's more politics in the private sector than there is in the public sector because the public sector is clearer and more open. Is that what you're saying?

Fergal Timlin 22:40

Depends on where you define politics.

Dusty Rhodes 22:44

Let's not go there. Yeah, let's not go there. It's a mermaid. Can I ask you because your career path is slightly different from Claire and Fergal, you're now the head of the National Building Control and Market Surveillance office. How did you go from all the projects and stories you were telling us earlier into that particular position? How did your career lead you there?

Mairéad Phelan 23:05

I suppose I've always followed the projects rather than the career. I've never followed the career straight lineup, and I could have done it. And I have, purposely not followed projects, I follow projects that interest me. If you look I was in the private sector, and I was a senior resident engineer and senior designer and I took a pay cut for an area engineer IVC, myself, as an engineer, first and foremost, and a problem solver and a designer. That's all I ever wanted to be. Even as a child. That's all I put. Nobody ever told me that it was a totally male-orientated, professional Tiller who walked into UCD in tears with tears promotionally from eight years in a school with not even male teachers, or girl school from five years in a boarding school girls boarding school. And I remember walking in a little bit late the first morning in terms of testing, I was looking up and I'm thinking, this is interesting. Nobody ever I actually never I never thought to ask and I had an uncle in engineering never never dawned on me. I just saw a guy building a bridge one time and he drove a lovely car and I was hooked. In Cleveland, I'm the head of the National buildings and roll-offs and how I came there really was pirate in Fingal was a serious issue. And I was tasked with dealing with people who were suffering, the adverse consequences of the floor is heaving because of impurity in the underfloor fill and meeting people who lived in houses, ordinary people who were not people that bought second houses, and the suffering that they were going through, actually did affect me. And I came back and I looked at the building control system. And I looked at it in conjunction with the chief executive at the time and said, Actually, we haven't got enough oversight here. We need to do something. This is too much self-regulation and nobody really oversees itself. That's where I went and had a look at a few of my staff and said, look at how do we collect this. So we actually designed a bespoke compliance management system and national IT system to collate all of the commencement notices, the fire safety certificates, and the disability access certificates into one place one unit. So I follow the job. And the job followed me to improve how we do building control and compliance with the requirements of the building regulations in Ireland because nobody had looked at the building regulations in the context of why they were there, because regulation in civilised societies for health and safety, the citizen and protection of the environment, and that's what we all do. But the building regulations specifically say health, safety, and welfare of people in or about buildings. So everybody was looking at the requirements, all these technical requirements, engineers have made them and it's very difficult to build and anybody can build. But every single part of the regulations is for the health or the safety or the welfare of the person living inside the buildings. And we had to kind of re-look at the way we implemented them. So part of my next couple of years was a national ICT system. So now I'm suddenly gone from a bridge designer to an ICT computer interface. So Linux, everything has, we designed up the only fully designed online ICT system for service delivery earlier in local authorities. So now what we have now is we have oversight of all the designs for every building, every home in the country, and we can go in there, do a risk assessment, get people out to inspect them, pull designers in if one designer in a county is not living up to what they should be, we have them in the system, we can pick them out of every other county and ask the billing and loan officers look at, you need to look at this building, prevent proliferation, we have a long way to go still. But as I said, I've always followed the project and the impact.

Dusty Rhodes 26:58

And I asked you about what you were saying when you know you just saw the guy building the bridge, neat, nice car and you went, I want to be an engineer and you never thought about gender. It never entered your head, which is great. And then you ended up as an Air Force terrorist and you kind of go, Huh, hello. Has that changed in your time?

Mairéad Phelan 27:16

I'd say Not really. And I'm now I'm coming back. And I thought about this quite a lot. And I'm looking at it in the context of education for people building houses. The subjects in secondary school are still the same boy-girl subjects, the way they make them up that they were in my day. Even the community schools, will package domestic science or home economics as it's called these days, which I believe should be be subject for everybody, because people I tell you what, when I was did engineering, all the guys that couldn't cook, they couldn't do anything. And I couldn't draw because I didn't do mechanical drawing or anything else. So I took them jelly, and they helped me do my mechanical drawing. And they thought I was a genius. You know, you guys look at not being able to make better custard or jelly or something. But anyway, that's an aside. But the thing about it is, the schools are not doing enough with this boy-girl subject. I had severe difficulties, even the nuns told my mother about doing engineering, and they wanted me to do primary teaching. So there is still the nursing, the teaching, the civil service aspect to every secondary school in Ireland. And that's very disappointing.

Dusty Rhodes 28:27

Fergal, do you want to come in there?

Fergal Timlin 28:30

Yeah, look, I was just gonna say my work with the Thailand region and civil division of engineers, Ireland, and I suppose Women in Engineering is a big item on the list. It's always been pushed for the last 1520 years, I suppose everything they've done, they've only changed the percentages, a couple of points still the same way. It was like when I was in any way G I think it was something to 10% of the undergrads are women. And like, it's, I think it's up to 14%. Now, you know, we're not talking about major changes, even though the culture has changed. I completely agree. There's a big push on, though, for engineers to get into primary schools and secondary schools. And realistically, it's to get into primary schools and to meet them when they're in the formative years. And kind of explain particularly to the girls what it is like to be on-site or what it is like to be a designer. And what is like in the industry, I think we can all agree the simplest definition of an engineer is that we're just problem solvers. We love problems. We love solving them. And like just explain that the students and why it's open to everyone, and not that there's these, I suppose gender assigned kind of roles or stereotypes associated with engineering that we have to break to actually get young women into engineering.

Claire Hughes 29:35

Absolutely. Yeah, I would agree. I would agree with Maria, they sort of have the same experience as you Maria would go into an all-female secondary school, and I was very lucky to be able to actually do physics and chemistry. Together. There was no option for Applied Maths or engineering or computer science or technical graphics. None of that was available to me when I went to college, and like that, I went into a room of 200 people, 170 of them were males and I hadn't seen a guy in a bar I took 15 years. It's quite a shock to the system and feel like you're constantly on the catch-up the first two years in Trinity we did all engineering mechanical, and we did all subjects that were for all different types of engineering. And you constantly felt like you were on the catch-up all the time because you were in a class with students that had done tactical graphics that had done all these other different subjects that were available to them. But coming from the school that I had, I literally just had physics and chemistry and maybe a strong background in maths. So definitely looking at, in particular all female secondary schools, to see the subject choices that are available and see what can be done having these subjects available to everybody, and tend to look at it from a grassroots point of view.

Mairéad Phelan 30:42

I take it another step forward, forward, sorry, I'm interrupting you, am I, I take it another step forward, in that we actually all live in houses, houses need maintenance, children are not taught how to hammer a nail straight anymore. So there's a whole lot of education is for life, and to actually be able to live in the world that we are that you know, we live in. And we should actually come out with the tools to actually be able to eat to be able to survive, and to be able to live in our houses. So we're not getting that anymore. And I think that's a shame because I am on building sites and I'm in houses and I see the poor younger that comes out and you can't even hammer the nail straight. And I'd like to take the nail and then say, well, could I show you how to do this. And then I look at nice brickwork and I'm thinking, that actually would be a lovely job for a boy or a girl, because the bricks are lies, but they're not exposed to it at an early enough stage. And I think every child loves a brick to play with every child loves Lego. I've never met one that doesn't. I've never met a child who doesn't love the box that the stuff comes in, the dialogue comes in, and they want to play with the box. So why are we not bringing that along through the schools? We've kind of headed in the wrong direction, I think. Anytime to teach.

Dusty Rhodes 32:01

I love this because we don't restraint into what engineering is all about. We have come across a problem. We need more women in the industry, and why are they in there? unbraid has got some brilliant ideas. But I'm wondering what you think, about this particular problem? What would you suggest as a fix?

Claire Hughes 32:18

Just I'm thinking back on my own experience. Career Guidance is also an element in school that I find, like Maria was saying there. When I mentioned engineering to my career guidance counselor, I was an older lady, she was a non it's like, what is that? She got her perspective Stein on she was like, going through the pages going what is engineering, again, she was pointing in the direction of nursing or primary school teaching that seemed to be just what we were meant to do, or whatever, you know. So career guidance is very important. You have to recognise that everybody has so many different talents, so many different areas where they will flourish and I suppose maybe making sure that they have a very strong element of that. And the schooling as well would be very important.

Dusty Rhodes 32:59

And Fergal any quick fix them yourself?

Fergal Timlin 33:02

Yeah, I think I'm a firm believer in placement programs. Now I know not every student is going to have access to kind of the year or two, six months to actually undertake these placements. Like a good example for me is that my family, my father, and most of my uncles are engineers. My mother is a town planner. So like I've always had this background that I kind of wanted to kind of fit into that role and construction itself. So I wanted to be a civil engineer, I have wanted to be a civil engineers since I was seven years old. When I did my first year in college, my father met me after I got back off the bus and said to me, right for what is the civil engineer. And I went, I don't know. So after all this ambition, all this passion to become a civil engineer, I actually didn't know what it meant to be one. Because like you said, you can just read a prospectus or read a summary of what engineering is and go, Oh, okay, that's what I want to spend the next 50 years of my life doing. It's, it's something that you have to jump into. So like I took a year out of college, and I worked for a construction company, Brian McCarthy. So yes, it was it was tough. It was long hours, it was constantly up against in terms of resources, making sure we managed time and everything else. And I absolutely adored it, I loved it. And it just ignited the fire inside me, even more, to get back into cars to get through college to get out and cited stuff. So like for me, if I hadn't done that kind of taste or if there was a potential that all this time had been spent convincing myself and wanted to be a civil engineer would have done four years of degree. Okay, most of it. He's had been on site. He's been working in the office, doing the designs all day, and maybe went off and being an accountant. But I would have thought I'd wasted four years of my life. So for me, like I've seen when I have students inside the offices, if we've undergrads working with us, like I love spending time with them explaining what we're doing and why we're doing it. I love bringing them on-site so they can actually see it. So like I think a big one for me is that if you can get them for even three months inside a placement program you can give them an amazing perspective on what we actually do and he why we want people to do with us.

Dusty Rhodes 34:53

Well, I have to say from from speaking with the three of you on the podcast today, the passion that each of you have for what you're doing and all of you have been in the career for, you know, kind of you're not beginners, shall we say. It's great to see that you still have that passion. I love that, and the satisfaction that you're getting from working kind of on the local and the more public end and being able to walk around. I think it's just, it's amazing. It's been a real eye-opener for me and just absolutely brilliant. And then we came up with loads of great ideas to fix the problem. So this has been the perfect engineering podcast, as far as I'm concerned, Mairéad Phelan from the National Building Control and Market Surveillance Office, Fergal Timlin with Limerick City and county council, and Claire Hughes from Louth County Council. Thank you all for joining us today.

Mairéad Phelan 35:35

Thank you very much. Thank you.


Thank you very much.

Dusty Rhodes 35:39

If you'd like to find out more about Fergal, Mairéád, and Claire and some of the topics that we talked about today, you'll find notes and link details in the show notes area on your podcast player right now. And of course, you'll find more information and exclusive advance episodes of our podcast on our website at Our podcast today was produced by for Engineers Ireland. If you'd like more episodes, just click the Follow button on your podcast player to get access to all of our past and future shows automatically. Until next time from myself, Dusty Rhodes Thank you for listening.