All things apprenticeships and nuclear with Helena and Paul from Ultra Energy

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We were recently joined by Helena Wilde and Paul Hine, STEM ambassadors and engineers at Ultra Energy, for our latest episode of Leaders of STEM. Together, they shared insights into Ultra's outreach into the community in Bournemouth to increase awareness of STEM careers, as well as their routes into the industry.

First of all, it’d be great to share your backgrounds—how did you ‘end up’ here, so to speak?

Helena: I suppose I’ve always really been interested in engineering. From a young age, I was taking things apart, much to my mother’s dismay, and then trying to put them back together again—not always successfully, but I did have a good collection of parts to make new things. Fast forward to my teenage years, and I joined the Air Cadets—in my time there I taught propulsion and airframes to the more junior cadets, and then I joined the Air Force as a propulsion engineer. Then I’ve spent many years working predominantly in the aerospace development side of things: worked for Airbus, BAE Fairchild, Cobham, and now I’m here at Ultra.

Paul: I took the more traditional route. I followed my father into engineering, and my days at school were preoccupied by sport. I took an apprenticeship with British Oxygen, and it led me to be trained and get practical experience to the point I become the Group Wielding Engineer. I then followed a more academic course with British Aerospace; eventually I had overall responsibility of building the flying controls and cockpit floor on the BAE-146.

With your extensive aerospace industry experience, what specific practices or mindset shifts from that sector have proven invaluable in your roles at Ultra Energy?

Helena: I think one of the main things is it's all safety critical systems. You have the same mindset in aerospace as in nuclear. Systems engineering is systems engineering wherever it's applied. They’re sort of two of the main things, I think, that have come across – obviously also the management of teams. Wherever you're managing a team in engineering, it's pretty much the same. It's the same skills. So, I think the years that I spent in aerospace on safety critical systems has been invaluable for I'm now doing at Ultra Energy.

Paul: In the aerospace world, there's a statement called foreign object disposal. If there's a bolt on a bench and you can't account for it in other industries, you might just dispose of it or put it in your bottom drawer for a challenge. When it comes to aircraft, it becomes the Spanish Inquisition. You must work out where it came from, why it's fitted, if it must be replaced, traceability of product, quality, integrity, paperwork. These are all words that are second nature to anyone in the aerospace game. There's a phrase: “you can't park an aircraft on a hard shoulder so it cannot break down.” And the nuclear sector, if anything, is even more demanding in that regard.

It would be good to get an overview of what Ultra Energy does and the types of customers it serves.

Helena: Well, we have our site here in Dorset, and we also have a site in Red Rock in the USA. And really, we specialize in nuclear control and safety systems for a wide variety of applications in various sectors. No two projects are the same, no two set of requirements are the same, and that presents us with quite a lot of challenges. But we've got such a good pedigree of knowledge and experience within Ultra energy. It's about meeting the needs of our customers and building safe and reliable control and safety systems.

Is an element of it monitoring reactor performance, including factors like temperature and pressure in those environments?

Paul: Yeah, that's very much one part of it. Engineering is about solving problems generically and monitoring a process or monitoring the environment around the process would be two good examples to make sure that either the individuals are safe, or the process is under control. Those temperatures are monitored. If it goes out of control or above certain important parameters, then we put in systems upon systems, there's a lot of backups, stale, safe levels of redundancy to ensure that a nuclear process or system doesn't go out of control.

One would imagine that the nuclear sector is growing, given some of the concerns about petrochemicals, oil and gas, and broader energy supply. Are you seeing bigger investments in this area from various global markets now?

Helena: Yes, I think we are seeing bigger investments now and it's great that there is this focus on nuclear power generation now. Obviously, it's great for Ultra Energy, it's great for the whole world really that we're now sort of getting this big investment.

Can you share your insights on why some in the industry might be hesitant to engage, and what factors have contributed to the skills gap, aside from furlough and retirements?

Paul: I believe that the perception in the past for engineering has been one around metal bashing, noisy, smelly machine shops or whatever, and there are many other exciting careers. However, our task really is to get across that engineering isn't metal bashing. There are elements that are, but there is a wide spectrum of skills systems, programming, CAD design. These are all well away from the shop floor when you go into the assembly and the electromechanical assembly of our components, a lot of the time they're complex systems and interesting to make in themselves.

So, getting people aware that there is an option in engineering or Stem careers is the first step. We also do corporate events where we go out into the community. We might be picking litter off the beach but making people aware of Ultra so that not only do people know that we're into engineering and engineering solutions, but also, we as a company exist.

We then take ideally, not just the brightest minds, but people that are interested in a career and they come and join us. We then open the apprenticeship program, the graduate program, that sort of thing. And from there we want these people to grow, to be the best they can be. Because if they're the best that they can be, then that's good for the company, which ultimately leads to a better world.

Ultra does a lot of community outreach, such as sponsoring the STEM pavilion at the Bournemouth Air Festival; what does that entail?

Paul: So, the Bournemouth Air Festival is an event that happens every year, and part of that is a wider community engagement. Within that, there is a STEM village which Ultra sponsored this year. So, it's a large tent full of companies and organisations: the RNLI were there, Rolls Royce were there, we were there. So generally, the only link is really STEM. So people come into the village, and there’s usually interactive tasks going on where people can sort of relate STEM to a practical situation and then learn a bit more about the company and then maybe go off and think about how, actually what's flying above our heads quite dramatically has to be made, has to be designed, has to be programmed. And even the people flying them need to be trained. And we, as a company and other companies, play a very important part in that.

And beyond that, have you got active programs in terms of engaging with secondary and sort of tertiary education locally as well?

Helena: We've got quite a few events coming up. We've got one at QE School in Wimbledon in a few weeks’ time. That's a career spur. And it's those kinds of events that we go to. We talk to the young people; we talk to the parents, and we talk to them about what their options could be in a STEM career. And although we're coming at it from a point of view of Ultra Energy, we're looking at it as well that if we can increase the pool of people that there are in STEM, it can only be beneficial for all of us. That's the kind of thing that we do. We've got many events planned, not just for young people that are looking to do their GCSEs or their A levels, but younger, to try and encourage them to study the STEM subjects from sort of eleven onwards.

What percentage of your time, both in terms of working time and personal time, are you devoting to your ambassadorial roles?

Helena: I would say in work I'm probably devoting about 15% to 20% of my time to STEM ambassadorial bits and pieces. Outside of work, it’s probably about 30% of my time, my own time to STEM. I've recently become a STEM ambassador with STEM Learning. So, as well as doing events through Ultra Energy, I also do events outside of work as well.

Paul: I'm the same: 15 to 20% of my time inside work. Outside of work, I'm an athletics coach, so I've often been around kids at school. Just as an example, two years ago we had a school party come in and do a work tour around Ultra, and one of those lads was very interested in our company and what he did was he went away, worked on their STEM subjects at school. I'm pleased to say this week they joined us as an apprentice.

I run the apprentice program at Ultra, so I'm delighted that that little site tour and them showing a bit of interest in Ultra led to a career. And I think we mentioned earlier about the economy—going to university and getting graduate debt isn't for everyone these days. A solution where you can learn and get experience whilst being paid and further your education is very relevant.

So when you’re not working at Ultra, or being a STEM ambassador, what do you get up to in your spare time? If you have any left, that is.

Helena: My spare time is predominantly filled with my partner and her seven-year-old son. It's about him, to be honest. Most of the time, it's just the day-to-day things. But then at weekends, we like to do a lot of activities. We like to get them out. We go to water parks and jump around on inflatables in seawater and strange things like that. He did used to have a future engineer T-shirt, which he grew out of, so I need to buy him another one.

Paul: When I moved to Dorset about 15 years ago, I decided that it was a good time to give something back to the sport that gave so much to me. I went a long way, travelled to lots of interesting places as an athlete. So, I got into coaching, and I'm now a county official. Three nights a week, you'll find me voluntarily coaching athletes at the track. And then when I'm not doing that, my main sport, believe it or not, is sailing. I like to think I'm still competitive. I get the drive out of trying to get a boat going as fast as it can.

Finding Helena, Paul, and Ultra Energy:

Check out Ultra Energy's website to learn more about their work in aerospace and nuclear engineering: www.ultra.energy

You can find Helena and Paul on LinkedIn.

Listen to Leaders in STEM on Spotify.

Becky Nicholls

Becky Nicholls

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