Teamwork at heart of engineering projects

In her role as project director with Jacobs Engineering, Cliona Kennedy is responsible for leading the design and construction of manufacturing facilities for many major global life sciences companies.

Teamwork at heart of engineering projects

  • Name: Cliona Kennedy
  • Occupation: Senior Project Director, Jacobs Engineering
  • Background: The company designs and constructs plants for the pharmaceutical, biotech and energy industries, building facilities for many of Ireland’s major multinationals. Headquartered in Texas, the firm employs over 77,000 people in 400 worldwide locations

In her role as project director with Jacobs Engineering, Cliona Kennedy is responsible for leading the design and construction of manufacturing facilities for many major global life sciences companies.

“These clients are delivering transformative, often life-saving medicines and therapeutics, and working to ambitious innovation programmes and aggressive timelines,” she explains. “This means that frequently, facility design and product development must happen in parallel rather than in sequence, and this challenges our teams to bring new levels of agility, flexibility and innovation when it comes to facility design.”

Against this backdrop, they provide end-to-end solutions, including engineering, procurement and construction management services — an ‘integrated project delivery’ model designed to bring new levels of efficiency in terms of project timelines and cost.

“As project director, my role is to ensure we deliver projects safely, on time and within budget and that we communicate with clients throughout the project to ensure the best possible outcome. My current project is in a country where we have not previously delivered a life sciences facility. While the principles of project delivery are the same, operating in new geographies and cultures adds a new dimension. It’s about applying our global expertise while being sensitive to this local context.”

She regards the recent International Women in Engineering Day as important not just for women, but for everyone working in the engineering sector: “It provides an opportunity to reflect on the great work that women in engineering are delivering, and to spotlight the opportunities offered by this vibrant sector. While we must continue to work to attract new talent to STEM careers — both male and female — there is also work to be done to support women within the sector.

For example, we must encourage women to strive towards more senior roles and continue to highlight issues such as career progression for all minority groups. It’s important to remember that everyone benefits from a gender-balanced, diverse environment

Having graduated Trinity College with a Mechanical Engineering degree, she has over 25 years’ experience in program, operations and project management and mechanical process engineering design. She has spent a significant portion of her working career in the US, with broad experience across pharmaceuticals and biotechnology sectors.

She is currently engaged as project director for a €130m engineering, procurement, construction management pharmaceutical project in Finland.

“I wanted a career that would offer international opportunities, allowing me to travel and qualify for work outside of Ireland. Engineering provided a defined career path and a gateway to a global career. Two years after I graduated, I left Ireland for the US on a one-way ticket. Having spent close to 20 years working all over the States, I can safely say I never looked back. The US offers great opportunities, and, in my experience, Irish engineers tend to do well because they are not afraid of hard work.”

STEM subjects are key for those considering engineering, she underlines: “When I was at school, girls were discouraged from doing honours maths, while applied maths and physics were only available outside normal school hours. This made the route into engineering for female students incredibly complex. Thankfully, the situation has changed and today we are seeing strong momentum in the uptake of engineering and broader STEM careers among females.”

She sees increased numbers of women pursuing a career in engineering because of the array of opportunities it offers across a range of industries: “They see it as a rewarding, diverse career, offering steady work, competitive salaries and the option of international travel. While engineering is a great choice for anyone with an affinity for maths and science, I think women bring some unique benefits to the profession. Perhaps it’s that women are a little less worried about challenging the status quo and are willing to break down barriers. Studies also show the benefits that women bring to collaborative problem-solving.”

Cliona lists working on large-scale projects offering a high degree of variety as the most satisfying aspects of the work, including working with different teams and collaborating with colleagues to find solutions to project-specific challenges.

“Working towards a common goal with a great team is one of my favourite aspects of my job. Recognising that project delivery is a team sport is the key - you cannot deliver it on your own so it is about figuring out how to get the best out of every team member. Every project is different and demands a unique approach.

Working together to a common goal provides a real sense of accomplishment among the whole team, a feeling magnified once a project is delivered to a client on time and within budget.

With a background in STEM subjects, students have a great range of third-level engineering courses to choose from, and she recommends they seek an internship or college placement to gain experience at an early stage. Jacobs takes on approximately 400 paid interns each year, between the UK and Ireland, and strives to offer permanent roles to all strong performers on completion of its campus intern programme.

Given the current upswing in the Irish economy, she underlines the new and exciting opportunities for the engineering sector, particularly with so many major multinationals choosing Ireland as a base.

“One of the key elements attracting these companies is our strong talent pool and the calibre of our engineering graduates. This in turn offers Irish engineers the opportunity to work with some of the world’s most innovative companies and acts as a gateway to a successful career, be it here in Ireland or internationally.”

With the basic principles of engineering universally applicable, the skills are readily transferable in a global context: “Overseas opportunities are plentiful and rewarding. The good news for graduates and school leavers considering a career in the industry is that today there are even more opportunities to work abroad as multinationals seek consistency across global project delivery. Engineering allows you to experience different cultures, pushing you out of your comfort zone to achieve things you may never have imagined.”

Engineering is at the cutting edge of innovation and technological advances are creating new ways to achieve successful outcomes, she points out.

Growth in IT and AI consistently provides new methods of production and communication that enhance the way that we do business. While it can prove challenging to bring new technology to bear on fast-track projects, if it is successfully implemented, the rewards for the project, the client and in some cases for society can be huge.

Her advice to students considering a career in engineering, her advice is succinct: “My advice is to go for it. Try to integrate some work experience while you are in university so that you can bring practical aspects to your learning. Develop a sound work ethic and prepare for interesting challenges.

“Nothing is handed to you in engineering, but you can achieve a great career if you make the effort. Undoubtedly, it’s a demanding career so you need to find the type of work that you enjoy and people you enjoy working with. Remain true to yourself and don’t be afraid to have your own way of doing things. Finally, be ready to make the most of every opportunity.”

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