Sandra Rolfe Dickinson Receives the UKSTT’s inaugural Trenchless Woman of the Year Award 2023
First of all, congratulations on being presented with the first UKSTT Trenchless Woman of the Year award.
1. What does it feel like to be recognised for what, for those of us that know you, has been a significant part of your working life?
It was a great surprise to hear of the award, and I am pleased to accept it, in the hope that it will enable me to become a more visible role model to female engineers. I can’t say I’m a particular fan of gender-specific awards, but if it helps to ultimately promote equality in the industry, that is a good thing.
2. What does the Award mean to you personally (and/or to your family)?
I wish my Mum was still around to see me achieve this award. She was my biggest supporter and I think she would have been very proud.
3. What was your background/experience originally and what brought you into the trenchless industry?
After finishing my O levels in 1984, I joined Runnymede Borough Council for a summer placement job in their Main Drainage department. At that time Runnymede had an agency agreement with Thames Water, and was undertaking lots of interesting first time sewerage schemes. At the end of the summer, they offered me a permanent position as a Junior Technician, with college day release to study for a BTec in Civil Engineering. I had to convince my Mum that this was a good idea, rather than going on to do my A levels as planned. After achieving my BTec, I have to thank my college Maths lecturer, Mr Saddler, who continually badgered me to consider leaving Runnymede and going full time to polytechnic to study for a degree in Civil Engineering (which I did). When I graduated in 1989, water privatisation had just happened, so instead of returning to Runnymede, I joined the consultants Watson Hawksley in High Wycombe as a Graduate Engineer.
4. What has been your most challenging trenchless experience over those years (project/product development)?
In looking back over my career to write this piece, I cannot, in all conscience, airbrush out the not so palatable parts of my journey (not specifically trenchless, but generally of being a minority in the world of civil engineering). It is my hope that young engineers today would not have to suffer the occasions of verbal, physical and sexual abuse that sadly was not uncommon during my early career in the industry. I hasten to add that 95% of the men I worked with were supportive and encouraging, but there was always one or two who wanted to make life difficult or felt I should be at home doing the ironing. I sincerely hope this has changed.
5. What do you see as being your own greatest personal achievement in the trenchless industry?
Haha, that I’m still here! So many engineering graduates don’t stay in the industry, and it can be a tough gig on many levels. When I started, Project Management was seen as the career path for progression. I’m so pleased that this has changed, and that technical excellence is now equally rewarded. I was never one for budgets and programmes – I much preferred going on site to find out what had gone wrong. Through my work I’ve been lucky enough to visit about 16 countries on 4 continents, and I’ve been inside the sewers in most of them!
6. Have you any now or when you started in trenchless did you have any role models in the industry? Who? Why?
So many role models! From my earliest experiences in the late 1980s of writing my final year thesis on sewer inspection and rehabilitation (for which I won a university prize), and contacting people like Graham Cox and Richard Fraser for help, who were both very generous with their time. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the amazing Jonathan Olliff, who was my colleague and mentor for many years. As I became more immersed in the trenchless industry, I was lucky enough to work with and become friends with Norman Howell, John De Rosa, Peter Crouch, John Gumbel and many others who have encouraged and supported me over many years.
7. What do you currently see as the UK’s and the industry’s most urgent challenges and where do you hope to see the trenchless industry in the next 10 to 20 years?
Aging infrastructure and the long-term lack of investment are huge challenges to our industry, and unfortunately, digging down to fix problems is still far too prevalent. The five year funding cycles within the water industry have led to short term thinking, with projects being designed to tick off OFWAT objectives rather than being the best technical solution for the problems found within an area or catchment.
Climate change is another great area of challenge for our industry, and together with the government target of building 300,000 new homes every year, this is going to put tremendous strain on our infrastructure. I think there will be ever more need for clever trenchless solutions in the coming years.