Today Michelle Richmond may be in charge of 120 staff and a P&L of £16m, however, her engineering roots began as a humble apprentice. At 16 she had itchy feet and was determined to leave school and enter the workplace. She appeased her parents request for furthering her education by applying for an apprenticeship.
“I applied for two possible apprenticeships, one in banking the other in engineering. It was a practical decision. I come from a family of engineers, both my mother and father had done apprenticeships and so they been through the process and knew that they lead to completely full careers,” she says.
Offered the engineering placement first, Richmond began her career on the shop floor, moving around departments to get a feel for the industry. She fell in love with microwave engineering whilst in the microwave test lab and focused on this as her specialism. After finding a passion for this subject matter, she worked towards a degree part-time, taking the graduate route towards becoming a microwave design engineer. This then developed into managerial roles as development manager, then moving on to operations and programme manager positions.
The fantastic feeling of passion for your work
“Even now there’s still something about microwave equipment and things I’ve designed. When I drive to Heathrow I see the Watchman antenna I remember helping develop. Every time I see it I feel that something I’ve had a hand in is bringing in thousands of aircraft a day. That’s a fantastic feeling,” she says.
So why the move from industry to a professional body like the IET? Well, Richmond had already been involved with the organisation for many years as a volunteer. She began this work at the age of 21. Having already won the IIE Mary George Memorial Prize for most promising technician she rose to prominence within the organisation and was asked to become part of the academic accreditation committee.
“Suddenly you find you’re mixing with new people: academics and eminent people,” she says. “It was a most marvellous opportunity, and I eventually went from being just a member to the dizzy heights of chairing the academic accreditation committee, then went on to chair the IIE council. I was the only woman and at 33, the youngest ever person to chair their council.
“The marvellous thing about being a volunteer is you develop a different skillset. It widens your horizons and that’s incredibly important.”
Thanks to her ongoing experience with the organisation, she was eventually headhunted for the role of director of Qualifications in 2005, taking on her current role a year later.
“I’d done 24 years as an engineer and thought it was a wonderful opportunity. I’ve not regretted the move,” she says.
Never a dull day
As the director of Membership and Professional Development, Richmond’s role is full of variety and challenges including balancing a very dynamic P&L. Income from membership and fees goes out on supporting members through the IET’s Local Networks, library and publications etc. With eight managers reporting to her, Richmond’s portfolio revolves around everything from membership subscriptions and professional registration through to Education 5-19.
“There’s no such thing as a typical day. Because the IET has such a variety and richness of member activity, my day can involve anything from meeting the chief executive of the computer society to discuss qualifications, through to being audited by the Engineering Council UK on our registration process. It could involve talking to 200 of our professional registration advisors or gathering our 5,000 volunteers to thank them for their time and support.
“It’s very people orientated, but there’s a hard business proposition beneath the services to members. You’d expect that the interaction with the members matched with running a business,” she says. “It’s a fantastic job, you never really know what the next challenge is going to be.”
Richmond has had a rich and fulfilling career and still to this day enjoys rising to face each new challenge and helping aspire the next generation of engineers. Here she offers her advice to the engineers of the future.
“Study as much as possible,” she says. “Even if you start as an apprentice, look for opportunities to go on beyond your apprentice qualifications - it will always stand you in good stead. I wouldn’t have got this job if I hadn’t persevered with another five years of part-time study. There are always ways to find that part-time study through the Open University (OU) or the local college. If you have a passion for engineering, and you want to get ahead in your career, then do continue your studies.”