Tharsus Group Inspiring Females: Melanie Stewart, Welding & Fabrication Lead
18 October 2022
18 October 2022
Mel, let’s go back to the beginning of your Engineering career – how did you get started?
To be completely honest, I had no awareness of manufacturing when I left school. My school didn’t actively encourage girls towards careers in engineering or technology, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My dad in particular was determined that I wouldn’t just waste away the days and brought me in to work with him while I figured out what I wanted to do. It’s fair to say that this was a pivotal point in my career – he owned a mechanical engineering and maintenance company. I was immediately hooked by the noise, the sparks, and the melding and crafting of the metal that was happening out on the shop floor. It was fascinating. I must admit, once I’d caught sight of the welding and fab side of things there wasn’t much more admin work from me – sorry dad!
Eventually, he grew tired of having to extract me from amongst the metalwork and suggested I should look at an apprenticeship. I did a year of a Mechanical Engineering apprenticeship before switching to welding and fabrication and the rest, as they say, is history – I won an ‘Apprentice of the Year’ award at the end of my first year!
What was life like as a female Welding & Fabrication apprentice when you first started?
Well, as I’m sure you can imagine, female welders were few and far between when I started my apprenticeship! I can’t deny that there were some hard times and plentiful knockbacks in my early career – once, simply because the company in question didn’t have any ladies’ toilets on site, an unbelievable thought now. I did also resort to shortening my name to Mel, because Melanie was never invited for an interview. However, being one of a handful of females working in welding and fabrication did bring with it a certain level of fame – on one memorable occasion, I was accosted as I was leaving a motorway service station by someone I had worked with years before, who remembered me as the only woman on the shop floor! Tough as they were, those experiences have shaped me into the person I am today, and I would like to think that I helped to change the perceptions of those companies I worked for in terms of what women can do, and what we are capable of.
Life as a woman in engineering is much different now. While the gender imbalance is still prevalent – something I feel we really need to target at primary and secondary education level – the sector is much more accommodating of women and the opportunities to progress and grow are there. In my role as Welding and Fabrication Lead at Universal Wolf, I feel I’ve been given the space and the trust to be a leader – everyone is valued, and treated as equals. I’m a passionate believer that no-one should feel they can’t pursue the career they want because of their gender, and I will always offer support and guidance to young women looking to enter the profession, whether that’s in welding and fabrication specifically or engineering in general.
You’re obviously very passionate about your work – what is it that you love about welding and fabrication?
Welding is actually a lot more creative than you might think at first glance.
It’s a melding of creativity and chemistry – there’s a science behind it, you have to understand how the metal will react to heat and adapt to that reaction. For me, it’s the act of creating something with your own two hands, watching it come together, crafting this cold hard piece of metal into something flowing and strong. There’s a real need for attention to detail and precision, combined with the creative element – it’s the perfect combination for me. And, indeed, anyone who relates to that description!
Let’s talk about inspiration – is there anyone who has really inspired you over the course of your career?
There’s no one well-known person who I would say has been an inspiration – I’m more inspired by the people I meet along the way. I recently attended the NEECC Inspiring Females Conference as a speaker, and I was genuinely blown away by the other speakers who shared their journeys so openly, standing by their decisions and having no regrets, because ultimately your path will take you to exactly where you’re supposed to be. There was a common theme of being led by your own personal values and being unafraid to flex and pivot in your career, which I loved. It spoke to my own experience – I started as a Welding and Fabrication Apprentice, then moved into Site Management, and Quality Engineering. My current role is a combination of the two.
You mentioned that you’re always willing to support young women who are new to engineering. Why is inspiring women to join the sector so important?
I’ve always been passionate about creating equal opportunities and encouraging more women into the sector. This is something that we need to drive from a school level, and alongside my fellow Inspiring Females nominee Sophie I’m looking forward to supporting our local schools outreach efforts.
I also recently became a mam, and that has really sharpened my focus around what kind of legacy I want to leave, and the kind of world I help to create for my daughter. I’m now more focussed than ever on breaking down the walls around gender defining our roles.