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A diverse group of people is much more likely to develop an innovative solution – with Alice Chaplin
New Zealand GM for Coffey and global chair for diversity and inclusion for Tetra Tech, Alice Chaplin is a strong champion for diversity and inclusion in our sector. Find out how Alice is making a difference.
Alice, you're a diversity and inclusion champion in the industry. Why?
Research shows that diverse teams are high-performing teams.
If we keep the same group of people doing the same thing, we'll develop the same solutions. A diverse group of people is much more likely to create an innovative solution that could revolutionise how we do things.
I've lost count of the number of times we've talked about the lack of female representation in our industry. One of my favourite sayings is "let's not ignore half of humanity". For a long while, there's been a critical shortage of skilled people in engineering, and we need to make sure that we're bringing in as many talented people as we can to fill those gaps.
We started the diversity and inclusion conversation concentrating on women in engineering, but it's so much more than that. There's a real lack of representation from the Māori and Pasifika communities, so we mustn't be exclusive in terms of diversity.
What are you doing in the D&I space?
As well as New Zealand GM at Coffey, I'm also the Tetra Tech Diversity and Inclusion Council global chair. Tetra Tech is a global consulting and engineering firm with 20,000 employees worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement was the catalyst for our international Employee Resource Group program (ERG). The program brings together groups of employees with shared characteristics and focuses on employees working with other employees to advance their careers.
We've recently launched our black employee's resource group (BELEIVE), and we're currently introducing Latino-Hispanic, Veteran's and LGBTQI+ employee resource groups. We also have a longstanding professional women's network with close to 600 members from many different countries. The development of these groups has involved a significant amount of work to facilitate their start-up and then work through the various governance policies that'll define their operation.
Early on, we developed a governance framework that allows any one of our 20,000 people to apply to set up an ERG. We work with those people to establish how much interest there will be in a particular group and then the Tetra Tech D&I Council votes whether to approve it as a global ERG. Once approved, the group works through to chartership and launch of the ERG. It's then run by employees for employees. Each group has a senior corporate sponsor and a leadership team who coordinate all the activities.
D&I has recognition at the highest levels throughout the company, at the same level of recognition and importance as health and safety.
What's the biggest challenge in your role at the moment?
It's hard not to focus on the obvious one, COVID-19. The fallout from the pandemic created the most extraordinary year in terms of our business, and it was essential that, as a management group, we worked hard to get our people through. Our people at Coffey were amazing during this challenging period, and everyone worked hard to get us to the other side. It wasn't easy, particularly during the level four lockdown in March and April 2020 as much of our construction work stopped, resulting in a severe reduction in our ability to earn revenue. One of the challenges we are now facing is the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic. We have done an excellent job keeping COVID-19 out of the community, but the potential remains for further lockdowns in the future. While you can plan for lots of different scenarios, it's much harder to do sound planning if you don't know what will happen. We have worked hard to develop a positive workplace culture focusing on what we can control, that has quickly adapted to changed conditions, and I'm proud of how we've all come together.
Alice, why did you choose engineering as a career?
I wanted to enter a profession that makes a real impact on humanity. As engineers, we're privileged to have the opportunity to help create the world in which we live. We provide drinking water, sanitation, homes, schools, infrastructure and hospitals. An engineer's work influences almost every part of people's lives.
I was fortunate to be introduced to engineering by my father, who's a mechanical engineer. He was the head of engineering at Reading University in the UK. As a child, we often visited his laboratory during the school holidays (sometimes even on Christmas Day), to check on his wire rope tests. I met many inspirational engineers who were my father's academic and industrial colleagues. Some of those people were based at Farnborough during the Second World War and were developing materials that would be used in modern aircraft. They were all incredible individuals with amazing stories to tell.
After studying civil engineering at university, I worked for a business consultancy as I was keen to get some additional experience outside of engineering. I gained a broader knowledge of finance and accountancy, strategy and business processes which meant I could complete many short-term assignments across Europe. Once I'd broadened my experience, I went back to engineering in the UK.
I enjoyed the short-term overseas work and had a desire to experience living overseas for a couple of years. In 2007, I accepted an opportunity to work on a wastewater treatment project here in New Zealand. I moved to Australia first as some of the design work on the project was being done there. I then moved to New Zealand for the construction phase. I was only going to stay a couple of years and then go back to the UK but one year led to another, and now 13 years later I am a dual citizen, and a proud Kiwi! But I haven't forgotten my heritage.
What's your favourite part of engineering?
I came into management later in my career, before which I spent many years in both office and site roles. I worked on the Auckland rail electrification project for several years, and I'm still so proud when I see the electric trains travelling around the city. I think, ''wow we helped make that happen'', and that feeling links back to why I became an engineer.
In my current role, I enjoy supporting the people who work for me and helping them develop their careers through learning, increasing technical and management skills and developing their project management skills.
What do you like to do for fun?
I love the outdoors and am a keen cyclist. I used to compete in road racing events, but I've changed tack to become a more recreational cyclist in the last couple of years. In February last year, I completed Tour Aotearoa, described as one of the world's great bikepacking trips. The tour takes cyclists over 3,000km from North Cape to Bluff, and I am pleased to say I finished the whistle-stop tour of New Zealand a little quicker than I had anticipated, taking just under 18 days. I'm also getting back into tramping, so my life is pretty full at the moment.