Retaining experienced staff in engineering: Natasha's story


Read about how Generation Engineer Natasha Keedwell works part-time while raising her young children. We cover her role and expertise within Trustpower, the arrangements she made with management to work flexible hours, and advice for employers keen to negotiate flexible positions with staff.

Flexible working hours while raising children

Generation Engineer Natasha Keedwell works 24 hours a week while raising her young children. She graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) in Digital Systems and is a Chartered Professional Engineer. After practising for some years, Natasha joined Trustpower in 2009.

Trustpower management, Natasha says, has been extremely supportive in helping her maintain her career. She took six months off with the birth of each child, and the days or hours she works have changed to suit the family as the children grow up. “If there’s a special event at playcentre or school I just rearrange my work so that I can attend. And when I’m not working, I won’t be contacted by anybody at the office.”

Natasha’s role at Trustpower

“At the moment, I do a mixture of policy writing – researching, reviewing world-wide best practice, choosing how the company does things – and developing guidance documents. In this role I look after public safety. Trustpower has 36 hydro power stations – I look at the potential risks to public safety, such as high-voltage hazards. This includes managing, eliminating and writing policies about mitigating risks, and ensuring we comply with current legislation.

“I’m working on a project to reduce the risk of arc flash (often caused by a fault in equipment which causes electricity to arc from one piece of equipment to another) – I’m implementing the recommendations from an independent report.”

Why allow a  flexible working structure?

When given the ‘heads up’ that Natasha planned to have children and wouldn’t be able to work full-time, Engineering Manager Ian Lees looked at how he could keep her expertise for at least some of the time. He says that Natasha’s qualifications, experience and the roles she worked in were all considerations when it came to offering the opportunity to work flexible hours. “Natasha’s attention to detail, professional approach and abilities in both technical and advisory roles meant that it was a clear benefit for Trustpower to retain such a resource; her outputs add value to the business’s projects.”

Developing an engineering career

“I love my job. It’s challenging, interesting and diverse – I have a great work/life balance and just want more of the same.” Natasha decided on engineering as a career because she loved maths and physics at school and enjoyed problem-solving. “I wanted to work in an industry that was always changing and where there’s always something to learn.”

Working part-time hasn’t changed this aspect of her role.  “My job involves travel, usually day trips, to some of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand to visit hydro stations.” Natasha assists with ensuring that Trustpower meets all new regulations, from both government and Transpower. Managing that change through to compliance is part of her day-to-day role.

Natasha also works on technical project management. She will have around 15 jobs, large and small, on the go at any time, ranging from penstock corrosion, communications, protection, public safety, and controlling upgrades to asset management.

Continuing professional development

A major benefit in being able to continue working in an engineering role is that a part-timer doesn’t get left behind in terms of experience. Natasha has maintained her professional development while working reduced hours at Trustpower and this, in turn, works to Trustpower’s advantage.

Who is eligible to work reduced or flexible hours?

Whether staff can  work flexible hours and/or work from home depends on Trustpower’s needs and is worked out on a case-by-case basis. “If we’re faced with losing a staff member with great skills then we need that flexibility,” Ian says, “It’s not a complex decision.” However, he adds, it’s not suitable for every job and depends on the skills or knowledge that a particular department requires.

“It could be a staff member from any area or level of responsibility; it’s on a needs basis. It depends how much you need that capability. It’s not because you’re a mother, but because you have unique skills and can use those skills to meet our business objectives.”

Are there costs?

Ian points out that allowing staff to work flexible hours isn’t an added cost. “We’d love to have Natasha full time, but at least this way we have her three days a week.” Finding someone to work those additional two days wasn’t difficult because Trustpower, with its multiplicity of sites and projects, is always hiring people to ‘backfill’ on jobs. “We depend on external alliances and always have a good mix of experienced internal people and some external.”

Advice for an employer considering flexible hours

Ian notes that the world has changed, and that if a company wants to ensure continued capability in the workplace it needs to enable flexibility, adding that he mightn’t have thought that previously. “You need people with the right attitude to support it, and it shouldn’t be a problem. It’s all about meeting the assigned responsibility – it hasn’t put me off doing this with someone else – it’s about continuity.”

Ian recommends anyone considering implementing a flexible hours structure for a staff member should first talk to other people to assess their suitability. “I spoke to people who’d worked with Natasha before or were currently working alongside her.” He adds that occasionally an employer needs extra flexibility, “Kids do get ill, and sometimes the spouse or grandparents can’t look after them. Our organisation allows for things like that, and staff do make up for it at the other end, working late or at home – with the technology we have these days, it’s a lot easier for people to do that.”

“You might find that the person delivers five days’ value in three – people might surprise themselves if they give it a shot.”

Our thanks to Natasha and Ian for their time and advice. If you have any questions, please contact us:

November 2014