Women In Engineering – Insight into Amanda McLaren


Amanda McLaren


Managing Director


Testing Solutions

What made you decide to pursue a career in Engineering?

I started my career in retail, working in the buying department as a Trainee at Asda Head Office, in Leeds. Whilst I enjoyed the hustle and bustle associated with buying for superstores, when visiting stores and carrying out feasibility studies on finished products, I decided that seeing something being ‘made’ and having an input into its finish specification, would be really interesting. I previously had an interest in the mechanics of a car – even putting myself on a motor mechanic evening course!  I therefore felt that going into a ‘manufacturing environment’ would be really cool.


My first experience in manufacturing was in a company making computer terminals and monitors, back in the early 1990s – I learned about the whole process of designing a product, creating a bill of material, creating a production works order, and fulfilling the demand in production, against a high-level master production schedule. I got it straight away and instantly realised that manufacturing was for me!


Having worked my way through a number of promotions and studying in evenings for my HND in Business and Finance, I left the Company after 9 years, armed with sufficient knowledge to move into an engineering environment.  In the late 1990s’, I picked up a role in James Heal (the Company I work in today, which produces textile testing machinery) as a Senior Buyer – quickly moving on to Purchasing Manager appointment and studying again in the evenings for an MCIPS Diploma.  That said, this wasn’t enough for me – I wanted to be closer to the action in the Factory and be involved in product development, production, and distribution.  I then made my way into an Operations Management role, followed by an Operations Director role, on the Board, which I carried out for over 4 years.


However, the Automotive Industry was beckoning me!  As such, after 10 years, I move into a company manufacturing single and double decker buses across 3 Plants, as Supply Chain & Operations Director.  I thoroughly enjoyed this very challenging environment!  Watching a Bus being designed, specified, built, shipped and furthermore, seeing passengers get on it, was incredibly satisfying!  I found myself negotiating contracts with high profile Companies such as Mercedes Benz, designing factory production flow, getting involved with complex engineering projects and being fully accountable for a Unionised direct labour model. I even project led the closure of a factory and was part of a team to move manufacturing to a green field site. Some amazing experiences!


After 4 years, I decided it was time for a new challenge and I picked up a new role working as Operations Director for a caravan, motorhome, and holiday home manufacturer in Hull.  Again, a lot of engineering challenges and a site which was completely vertically integrated.  I had to learn about the manufacture of GRP, wood cabinets, as well as the assembly of vans onto drivelines for motorhomes, caravans, and the full build of holidays homes. In a direct labour environment which was based on piece work, the production challenges were none stop.  I learned a huge amount more!


However, a daily commute of 150 miles per day took its toll and as if by fate, my old company came knocking, as there was an MD succession opportunity back at James Heal.  I grabbed the opportunity with both hands – throughout my whole journey, the textile testing sector was the one I really enjoyed and thoroughly understood.  The company – a brand leader – was respected by me and as such, I was honoured to take up the role.  I returned to the company back in 2014 and took up the position of MD when the company ownership changed hands in the September. Since then, we have grown 10% year on year and EBITDA has doubled in the past 3 years – why; because everything we do in James Heal, is around innovation, and ensuring our engineering designs’ truly meet the needs of our end customer. In fact, in our global market, James Heal of Halifax, is firmly positioned to set the standard!

What is your experience as a woman in Engineering?

Its largely a good one.  I have worked in very male dominated environments and most senior colleagues were respectful and treat me as an equal. Some were not so good, but that cannot get in your way. It’s about ‘knowing your stuff’ and essentially gaining respect; this is something you have to earn. It takes hard work, determination, a tough skin and the ability to remember you are a colleague and not a female in a male pool!  I try to keep emotion out of business and work hard to demonstrate my commitment, knowledge, experience and essentially, results.  This is what really matters – if you deliver, then there is no issue. You should accept, as a woman in a male dominated environment, that there may be the odd chauvinist on your journey, but such people are a minority and in my experience, usually insecure, so far as their own capabilities are concerned!

What do you see Engineering looking like for women in the future? How can we inspire young women to consider Engineering as a career option?

I am not so sure.  I do not see sufficient promotion within Schools and I certainly do not see schools, colleges or universities using their local areas’ sufficiently, to engage students with Local businesses’.  I would have no problem speaking to a group of ‘aspiring female Engineers’, yet they are rarely brought to my Company, nor do I receive requests to meet ‘future talent’. Insight IT & Engineering Recruitment managed to locate me via a social media stream – it is not so difficult to find people in the manufacturing engineering sector, who could offer experience, wisdom and hopefully, inspiration!


I am also not so sure if the scope of roles within an Engineering environment, are truly described to young adults choosing their line of study post 16.  For instance, getting into ‘Operations’ could lead driven females into a more Engineering biased role. I considered on a number of occasions, studying for an HNC in Mechanical Engineering – something I would never have considered in my post school years. There are other ways to engage females with the profession.