Posted: 16 May 2019

Empowering a diverse workforce: the NZAS and Southland Girls’ High School Educational Partnership

With applications open for the 2019 Deloitte Energy Excellence Awards until 22 May 2019, we’re speaking to some of our fantastic winners from last year’s event. Taking home the ‘Community Initiative of the Year’ award was New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter, who were recognised for their NZAS/Southland Girls’ High School Education Partnership. The partnership has been running for eleven years now, and is spearheaded today by NZAS Chief Executive & General Manager, Stew Hamilton. We spoke to Stew about how the partnership works and the wider issue of diversity in the engineering world.

Ideas taking flight

In 2008, on a plane somewhere between Wellington and Invercargill, NZAS’s General Manager at the time, struck up with a conversation with the passenger seated next to him – Southland Girls’ High School Principal, Yvonne Browning. After a while, the discussion moved onto the under-representation of women in STEM roles and in a lightbulb moment, the pair devised an initiative that would go on to become the partnership.

How does it work? A selection of final year science students from SGHS are welcomed to the NZAS plant for a week of practical experience and projects. There’s no theoretical experiments here – Stew stated that ‘the projects are real problems and opportunities that our operation is trying to solve.

'Over half of the students involved in the partnership have gone onto engineering school, taking the first step in exciting careers.'

‘The students are lined up with process engineers and mechanical engineers in the workplace and assigned a project for that week. Then, they use that week to capture data, do some analysis and, if they can, put improvements in place. At the end of the week, they feed back to a panel of leaders across the site with the outcome of their work.’

It’s quite the operation, involving employees from across the company as they share their experience and skills with keen students. It’s been beneficial on all sides, with Stew saying that over half of the students involved in the partnership have gone onto engineering school, taking the first step in exciting careers. Although they haven’t necessary returned to the company after their years at university, for NZAS, this programme isn’t designed to solely for their benefit – as Stew said, ‘for us, it’s not about creating future engineers for ourselves; it’s about helping New Zealand in terms of gender diversity in engineering.’

A future of inclusion

So where does New Zealand engineering sit in that diversity conversation? Despite a gentle climb in progress, women still account for less than a quarter of engineering students across the country and that imbalance in representation feeds into companies. However, partnerships like the one at NZAS are key to making a difference. At the beginning of 2018, just 6.7% of NZAS’s workforce were women, and now that has climbed to around 9.7% - a fair difference when measured proportionally. Stew pointed out that ‘the programme over ten years has a large part to play in that.

'It's also been good for our people get some understanding of how we should set the workplace up, as well as developing the change in mindset required for greater diversity.'

‘It's not only good for students to come in and get an idea of what the industry is like but it's also been good for our people get some understanding of how we should set the workplace up, as well as developing the change in mindset required for greater diversity.’

As Stew has seen, it does take real, actionable work to improve diversity in an industry that has been male-dominated for so long. In NZAS, they’ve worked to train leaders in how they approach their work and how they can support those employees that are unrepresented. In the end, that change works for everyone.

With his extensive experience in the industry, Stew said that with more women in engineering, ‘I’ve seen the interaction between teams has changed. It’s more inclusive, which generally means people are more tolerant, and more accepting of the fact that others on the team have different skills to bring.’

The steps ahead for the partnership

The NZAS/Southland Girls’ High School partnership marked the conclusion of its first decade with their win at the Deloitte Energy Excellence Awards, a worthy plaudit for the tireless work completed by those involved. The benefits of that win was felt in the attention it brought to the partnership. When asked about that attention, Stew said, ‘it was a really great recognition for all the significant work that's gone in during the ten years of the programme and people are really excited to see it noticed throughout New Zealand.’

Now, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Stew doesn’t have any any overt plans to change the award-winning partnership in its current state and is delighted to see that it may have inspired other schools too, stating that ‘I've had a number of people approach me to see if we can expand it to other schools and other areas.’ NZAS may be considering that expansion in the future but with a notable increase in female engineering achieved from just this one initiative, NZAS can be proud of their successful idea, formed in response to a seemingly insurmountable issue.

Has your energy company got a community initiative worth shouting about? Request your entry form for the Deloitte Energy Excellence Awards here.

About the Deloitte Energy Excellence Awards

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David Morgan

David Morgan

Partner - Corporate Finance

My work spans a variety of industries, with a special focus on clients in the energy and financial services sectors. I enjoy helping people understand the value of their business and ways to improve it in a dynamic environment characterised by the ever-increasing challenges of changing technology, regulation and competition. Deloitte has a vast network of skills and expertise, which I am able to leverage in order to connect clients with the knowledge and people they need to achieve the outcomes they desire.