A female engineer who’s been with BT for 26 years hopes more women can follow her into what she says is a ‘challenging but rewarding’ career.
Tonia Eales, 42, from Northampton, joined BT as an engineering apprentice in 1989. She’s worked her way up through the business and is now playing a leading role in making fibre broadband available to rural areas across Northamptonshire.
She’s telling her story to mark National Women in Engineering Day, an initiative that hopes to celebrate the work that women do in engineering, as well as showcasing the great engineering careers that are available for girls.
“Joining BT really was the best decision I could have made,” said Tonia, now a Senior Project Manager with Openreach, BT’s local network business. “At the time I was more interested in joining the RAF but my dad pushed me towards BT as he saw it as a secure long-term career option with plenty of opportunity. With hindsight, I would have to say he was absolutely right and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The early days of Tonia’s four-year apprenticeship, a fast track programme leading to a permanent role as a technical officer, were spent working out of Euston Tower in London.
“We would pretty much move around the business every two weeks, working for different departments and picking up new skills,” explained Tonia. “It was hard work but great fun getting involved with outside broadcasts and some more unusual activities such as lift maintenance. It was a great way to gain experience whilst studying for a qualification in transmission communications at a London college.”
Halfway through her apprenticeship, Tonia decided to specialise in internal construction, an engineering role within BT that focusses on the equipment based in the telephone exchange buildings.
“I certainly stuck out being the only girl in the country working in internal construction at that time,” recalled Tonia. “It didn’t really bother me as I’ve always liked being a bit different but I can honestly say I never had any problems. BT has always been very good to me and many of the people I worked with in those early days are now good friends.”
Short spells followed in BT’s product launch department as well as regulatory affairs, where Tonia was responsible for implementing the latest guidance from OFCOM throughout the company.
But when an opportunity to return to her engineering roots came up in 2010, Tonia jumped at the chance and was put in charge of BT’s commercial rollout of fibre broadband across London and the East of England. This involved working with suppliers and contractors to organise the engineering works to make the new technology available to more than a million homes and businesses.
“I would say the greatest challenge for any engineer, male or female, is making the jump up to management. It’s quite a change but I found that having a solid background in engineering certainly helped my credibility and I quickly built up trust with the teams I was responsible for. I guess they knew I understood the challenges they were facing as I’d done it myself for many years. I really think that helped.”
Fast forward to 2015 and Tonia is still co-ordinating the rollout of fibre broadband, but now as part of BT’s partnership with Northamptonshire County Council through the Superfast Northamptonshire project.
This £23.2 million project has already extended fibre coverage to more than 50,000 homes and businesses, the majority of which have access to superfast speeds.
Since services were first made available in February 2014, more than 250 green roadside fibre cabinets have been connected and more than 500 kilometres of fibre cable laid. All co-ordinated by Tonia through the many teams for which she is responsible.
But what advice would Tonia have for any women or girl thinking of following in her footsteps and choosing a career in engineering?
“It can be an extremely rewarding job and if you come with the right attitude and a willingness to learn then you can’t go far wrong. BT has been very good to me. They are a very good employer and I’m glad I applied to join the apprenticeship scheme.
“Lots of people work for BT who are prepared to give people a chance and as a result there are always opportunities to get involved with different things. If I’d have worked anywhere else I doubt I’d have had the same long career with some a great range of experience.”
National Women in Engineering Day was set up by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to celebrate its 95th anniversary. Find out more at www.nwed.org.uk.
For more information about the career opportunities at BT please visit www.btplc.com/careercentre.