Supporting staff onto an engineering pathway


It’s easy to think about careers promotion in terms of school leavers, but potential engineers can also be found in the existing workforce. James Tala enrolled in a Bachelor of Engineering Technology (BEngTech) programme after being encouraged by his employer to consider tertiary study.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do”

In common with many students, James completed secondary school without any career pathway in mind, “I just wanted a job.” 20 years later he still works at Dulux, now in the role of continuous improvement manager. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. It’s just lucky that my work at Dulux exposed me to engineers and aspects of engineering, so that I slowly developed a better understanding of what it involves.”

When offered the opportunity to study, James decided that engineering was a natural fit with his interests and that the BEngTech offered more options and flexibility. He enrolled in The Open Polytechnic programme so that he could study part-time while continuing full time in his job. “It also allows me the ability to plan my study around life – being able to juggle family, work and study.”

Doing it all has been a challenge he says, especially dedicating time to the level of study required while helping to raise two children. “As assignment due dates get closer, I’ll normally do a lot more study during weekends. My family has had to cope with less quality time but they have been really supportive.”

Transferring learning to the workplace

James says he is already benefitting from his studies, bringing skills learnt in the course to a job which includes responsibility for developing, implementing and monitoring safety quality and efficiency improvements in the manufacturing plant. He is also involved in creating engineering drawings, working in cross-functional teams and analysing information for review. “The engineering drawing courses I have done have definitely been invaluable for some of the projects I work on.”

While he has four more years’ study to complete the qualification, James is already looking to the future and possibly more study with an IT focus. “Again, it’s work related. The exposure to the automated systems in the factory has got me interested in programming.” The BEngTech gives you the basics, he says, with further training required for the more technical details. “There will be more reliance in the future on automation so it’s a field with lots of future opportunity.”

Why follow this pathway?

When asked what advice he would give to school leavers, James noted that he’s talked to a lot of other people who also didn’t know what they wanted to do when they left school. “If the older me gave advice to the younger me, it would be to just start studying something that interests you from a career perspective, even if you’re still not sure what path you want to take, until you get the hang of what interests you at a personal level. There are lots of programmes with a common first-year course, so you can easily transfer if you decide that pathway is not quite right for you.”

It can be tough combining work and study, he says, and you have to stay focused. James adds that his wife began studying after their second child was born, 20 years after she’d left school, and that it can be a struggle getting back into that frame of mind. “But the reward,” he adds, “is that there are more options for the person with the piece of paper at the end of it.”

Promoting diversity

Because James is of Tokelauan/Samoan descent, we asked him about the advantages of promoting diversity within the workplace. He mentions the benefit he observed, when first taking on a supervisory role in a production environment with a high proportion of Pasifika and Māori staff. “It was difficult at first to come to grips with the transition as I had worked together with these guys for a number of years on the floor and now I was suddenly responsible for their performance.  But, as we established the distinction between work relationships and personal relationships I found things became a lot easier because I could relate to them. I knew where they were coming from and with that relationship we could get the best out of each other.”

Encouraging staff

If you’re an employer assessing future staffing needs, you might want to cast your eyes over existing employees – perhaps one of them just needs that push to get onto the engineering track? James says he didn’t think he would get the chance to study again after leaving high school, “But here I am! If the opportunity presents itself – take it.”

Our thanks to James for his time and advice. If you have any questions, get in touch at

November 2015