9 minute read time.

In the next of our 'My Engineering Career' blog series, we hear from EngX Community Member Ian Belger, a Strategic Digital Consultant at Jacobs, volunteer for the IET Nuclear Engineering Network and a Chartered Fellow of the IET. Ian tells us about his career in the Nuclear Industry and some of his proudest moments as an Engineer:

Ian BelgerMy name is Ian Belger. I’m 62 years old and I now work for Jacobs as a Strategic Digital Consultant. In July 1985, I graduated with an Electrical and Electronic degree, followed by a PhD in Control Systems, achieved in 1991. During my early career I worked on the design of plant control systems (PLCs, SCADA systems and DCS systems). As I moved companies and progressed upwards, I took up more managerial / leadership roles, although still within the broad context of control, electrical and instrumentation engineering.

Most of my working life was spent in the nuclear industry, for a company called BNFL / Sellafield Ltd. There were also spells where I worked in IT delivery with other companies. I left Sellafield in 2022, before finding my current role in Jacobs.

What got me started

Whenever I speak at STEAM events or IET events, I always mention some of the memorable experiences from my life and career that made me think of Engineering as a career.  Firstly – when I was very young (10 years old I’d guess), we used to stay with family in Yorkshire. My uncle was a radio / CB enthusiast, with a radio set up in a little cupboard,  where he would spend evenings talking to people all over the world. He also worked on alarm systems in his day job. Often, he would give me damaged / used circuit boards to look at. I didn’t understand what they did or how they worked, but it was fascinating to see and explore them. They triggered an interest in the electronic technology.

Later at school, I was always good at chemistry, so I was keen to pursue something in that area as a career. My physics teacher knew my mum socially and told her that I was “really good at physics”. I’d never believed it, had no confidence in my ability, and his words made me consider my options again (on top of which, my chemistry teacher told me that a career in chemistry wasn’t a good idea!!).

TV and sci-fi shows like Space 1999 or Star Trek also influenced me at an early age. It may sound too fanciful, but they both made me dream of the possibility of living and playing a part in those worlds. I knew I needed to study those technologies to do something like that.

Going through it and coming out the other side

The challenges have been very different over what has been a long career. They vary from some technical problems, to supporting / working on “big” projects. I’ve also had more managerial and leadership roles and have dealt with some significant challenges in these areas too.

Two different challenges stand out – the first where I was part of a commissioning team on a significant project at Sellafield. Long days, long nights, working on complex plant systems as part of a very integrated team. Whilst there was significant pressure, there was a lot of camaraderie and support. Working on a huge project, seeing things work and come to life was a big thrill for me and my team. Commissioning requires thinking on your feet – constantly asking yourself questions, such as, ‘does it work, if not, why not? What can we do to improve the system to deliver what is needed?’

Later on, I ran a small but very capable team at Sellafield, though I still felt that it needed to improve. To achieve this, I needed to create an environment where the leadership and responsibility was more ‘distributed’. I took on the task without being asked by my boss – the demand to improve and change things came from me. A risky piece of work, in some ways, because I ran the risk of undermining my authority and credibility with my team, and in the wider business. There was innovation involved – not in a technical sense – but in us attempting to change the way we did things (certainly in comparison to other similar groups), but it was necessary. It was a gamble, but it paid off. The way my team developed, the way individuals grew and developed within different roles, was a definite reward for me.

Engineering roles can feel very “vocational” for me and it’s about making a difference. We have an impact in just about every walk of life. At Sellafield we were heavily focused on being safe but increasingly on working in a sustainable way – from cutting down on paper use when printing to using carbon reduction construction technologies. I always felt that it was more than just a job – we were doing something that the country needed doing and we had a responsibility to do it well, to do it to the best value we could (saving taxpayers money) and always looking to make that difference every day.

Dealing with change, positively

I’m an IET member and support a Technical Network for Nuclear. I was also a Trustee for 4 years. Alongside that I volunteered extensively to support the Professional Registration team, something I may return to when the time seems right. To stay up to date, I do my own reading looking at new technologies (U Tube is also good for this). Just working with my team at Jacobs (I’m part of an Innovation Directorate) also provides opportunities to be involved in new things.

I lead our support for an innovation programme being run by Manchester Met University, so, again, I’m dealing with academic staff, small organisations all bent on finding their niche in an innovative, competitive market.

It was in 1999 that I became Chartered, and 2006 when I became a Fellow.  When I worked at Sellafield, I actually had responsibility to encourage Registration but also get value from our relationship with the IET. We mandated Chartered Engineer (CEng) status for key roles and offered lots of support to staff to reach that goal. The rewards of this role were huge for me.

Some of my proudest moments come from those people (many who had concluded that they couldn’t do it) becoming a Chartered Engineer and seeing their pride in achieving it. Being a Fellow helped give me some credibility in doing this work. The UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence and Commitment (UK-SPEC) competencies provide a strong set of skills and values that I always felt were important to attain for our engineers. I felt that the independent assessment of those skills is also critical. I’m proud to be CEng but also proud to have helped many others on that journey.

As we have seen, I worked in the nuclear industry and at Sellafield, for most of my career (including the role at Jacobs). However, I did have a spell working as an IT Director at a wallpaper manufacturer, and as a Software Development Manager in a very competitive IT delivery business. Both roles were very challenging and could not have been more different from my positions at Sellafield. I was successful at both, but the companies themselves were struggling. In truth. It was a pleasure to get back to Sellafield.

Mentors and life’s great tapestry

Actually, I can’t ever remember having an official Mentor in any of my roles. It’s more the case that I’ve offered mentoring and support to others. That said, there have been numerous people throughout my working life who I would class as supportive, helpful and probably instrumental in me having a reasonably successful career. While it is hard to recall specific conversations or instances that made big differences, they are there and conversations, observations, negative experiences have shaped me to this point. To quote a ‘Star Trek’ story, these interactions create the tapestry of your life and its unwise to consider pulling on a negative thread of that experience. The tapestry can unravel and change how you are and who you are.

I used to lack confidence (something I probably hid fairly well). I was asked to support a colleague in the HR team with her coaching course; so we chose to talk through my confidence issues, to see if it gave her a strong case study - but also helped me.

It was a raw but valuable experience, and it helped. I created a 1 page note of my personal and professional achievements (laminated for robustness), and the idea was that I referred to it if I felt low in confidence. I’ve not used it in a long time – but I still have it.

For some time at Sellafield, I was responsible for supporting the new electrical graduates. I ran the scheme, put the structure in place and provided the line managers and mentors.

On day one, my initial advice was ‘your degree is no doubt excellent, something which you’re proud to have achieved. The reality is that it will help you, but the key now is to learn here, perform here, deliver here. Put your degree on the wall or in a drawer, use it for confidence, but focus on how you develop from now. We will help you do that’.

A lot of people see the big qualification as a right to achieve greatness, but it actually comes from hard work, listening, and using those lessons to develop. A guy at SL told me (when I moved to work at the site) – “Walk around here and claim to know it all and you’ll fail – badly. Walk around and be honest, humble, admit when you’re wrong, never believe that you know it all and you’ll do ok’. Great advice.

Final Thoughts

Artificial Intelligence (AI) scares people because we don’t fully understand it yet, what it can do and how it will affect jobs. I remember similar concerns around computers (because I’m that old), but it worked out ok. Perhaps technology, like AI, will help make mundane things easier, but I still believe the human ability to think, to lead, be intuitive etc will always be necessary. I guess we will see!!

Engineers make the world work, and we make it a better place to live. I don’t think this will change, but the way we do that will change and we have to adapt and learn with it. I’d tell anyone that it’s a great career, as long as you’re honest and work hard. Not everyone is a engineering genius – there is room in this role for many types. Grab opportunities, try stuff, challenge the way things are done (respectfully), listen to good people – and be a good person so that others listen to you.

When I was younger, I was quite mature for my age, I think – well respected, a natural leader. I wouldn’t change anything – as I said earlier, pull on one thread and watch it unravel. I’d tell my 16 year old self to enjoy it and to enjoy the journey as well as reaching a destination, life is for living after all. Engineering gives you the ability (money, time) to do that. Be good to people, put it back in and see how it goes.

Want to share your own Career journey with the EngX Community? Contact the Editorial team via community-online@ietengx.org and we'll be in touch! 

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  • Hi Andrew. Sorry for the late reply. I hadnt noticed your message. To be very honest, Im not an expert in academia generally and , specifically, in the ongoing design of school / university curricula. Like with all developing technology, I suggest it falls on those responsible for their design to keep pace with new trends, new technologies and to consider how and when to bring them to light as a topic within a broader area, or an area in their own right. At some point in the distant past, there will have been a similar date around computing I guess !?

  • Great article Ian! Clap

  • Hi Ian Considering the swift advancements in artificial intelligence and related technological fields, what strategies do you propose for evolving the curriculum and methodologies in engineering education to equip upcoming engineers with the necessary technical acumen, as well as the ethical and social consciousness required for the future? Best regards, Andrew.