Young engineer Penelope Nugent is embracing technology, networks and opportunity to construct her dream career.
Good things happen in pubs and bad things happen in pubs. But life-changing moments that convince promising, young university students to take an entirely new career path … do they happen in pubs? Indeed, they do!
Penelope Nugent was a law student the night she stepped into a pub. By the time she stepped out again a few hours later, she wasn’t.
“I started talking to a woman who began to tell me what she’d done that day at work,” said Nugent, now a civil engineer at Aurecon.
“She was a civil engineer and that day she had come up with a great engineering solution to relocate a creek around a tree. She hadn’t done anything crazy or grand, but for me it was a light-bulb moment. It helped me to understand the type of work done by civil engineers and I thought it sounded very cool. So, I transferred my degree and I haven’t looked back since.”
Nugent was no stranger to the industry – her father is a chemical engineer and project leader. What has impressed everybody around her though, is just how much of a respected leader and agent of change she has already become. It has only been four years since she graduated with Honours from a Bachelor of Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Adelaide.
“I think the world is in a state of constant change,” she said.
“There are always new technologies and new ways of doing things. We must adapt to whatever is thrown at us. I’ve grown up in that world where things are constantly changing, so it comes easily to me. Change is something we need to get on board with to help our careers.”
As soon as she graduated, Nugent left her home city of Adelaide and moved to Brisbane to join Aurecon’s Transport Infrastructure team. Her first project was route assessments for trucks across Queensland, which saw her using ArcGIS to map the routes to determine sight distance constraints and overtaking opportunities.
Since then she has worked on projects in Melbourne, Adelaide, Toowoomba, the Gold Coast and Brisbane, including with the Level Crossings Removal Authority, Transurban Queensland’s Logan Enhancement Project and the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure’s City Tramline Extension Project. For the latter she was thrilled to return to Adelaide to build a tramline past her old university.
“Getting to build infrastructure that’s going be around for a very long time, and in my home town, is really cool,” Nugent said.
“I’m excited by trams, trains and buses and enjoy exploring the ideas of dynamic ticket pricing for public transport to create a fairer fare system. Access to fast and affordable transport is a key equaliser in society. It’s also necessary to ensure that as property prices force people to move further out of cities, they still have access to services and jobs that are increasingly centralised.”
On Transurban Queensland’s Logan Enhancement Project (LEP), Nugent made her mark immediately, stepping into the technical advisory team. Angela Hili, Transurban Queensland’s LEP Design Manager, was immediately impressed with the talents of the young graduate.
“It was probably a more senior role than she would normally have achieved on her own merit as a graduate, but she was fantastic,” Hili said.
“She asked a lot of questions, which was great, and then understood what I wanted and turned it around for me, always by deadline. Even for senior engineers that’s not always easy. She certainly performed above her level. Penny proved to have excellent social skills. I could put her in conversation with anybody, including the client. I would trust her highly with another project. I expect that in a few years’ time she will be working in a role that would typically require far more experience.”
Her manager Georgina Mahoney concurs.
“Penny’s versatility and willingness to tackle new experiences stands out. She has done an outstanding job leading our Limelight Group (Emerging Professionals) and receives fantastic feedback from both internal teams and our clients,” said Mahoney, who is Vic and SA Infrastructure Leader at Aurecon.
In the Limelight
Nugent went from Brisbane Chair of Limelight, Aurecon’s emerging professionals representative group, to Global Limelight Chair in 2017, leading a team of 26 Chairs across 11 countries.
“Every office has their own local Chair. I have taken on the Global Chair role, facilitating the conversation, the issues and global initiatives between all the local Chairs,” she said.
“The group represents the interests and experiences of emerging professionals across the business and helps us understand and demonstrate the challenges faced by young professionals when they start in the industry.
“This might include issues such as the cultural change between university and industry, or discovering how to create your own career path. It’s all important and having a network of young professionals and a series of event, forums and professional development opportunities adds a layer of support.”
She’s also a member of the Engineers Australia’s Women in Engineering Queensland committee.
As if she’s not busy enough, Nugent has also been part of a team that won the Deloitte Challenge in the QUU Waterhack in Brisbane. Unafraid to use new technology to solve age-old problems, Nugent and her team introduced blockchain technology to accurately track asset locations.
“We had one weekend to come up with a solution for the problem posed,” Nugent said.
“The challenge was ‘How to use blockchain technology to improve the water industry’.”
“I’ve known so many projects where you’ll get a survey of where pits, pipes and pumps etc are in the sidewalk or in the road. Then inevitably, when you go to construct, you end up hitting a pipe that’s three metres away from where you’ve been told it was. It’s a repeated issue in every project, so I see a real need for this kind of technology.”
The winning solution developed by Nugent and her team was to have a single map kept in a blockchain that is constantly updated every time a crew finds an exact location of an asset or adds new ones. Each update becomes a new block in the chain, and that chain keeps the original data fresh, safe and always accurate.
“The shared data model means that if one company or department goes under or changes hands, you never lose the information because it is always backed up on other people’s systems,” she said.
“These assets last for a century or more. In that time companies change, and information is lost. Blockchain means this is no longer a problem.”
A young engineer’s greatest challenge
Nugent’s greatest career challenge so far, she said, has been working on the Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossings Removal Project.
“That was awesome, just because of the sheer size of the project team,” she said.
“The challenges that came with it were were numerous because of all the stakeholders involved. It was all about the local communities and their needs and wants, but there were also so many project teams, plus various political stakeholders.”
Nugent’s specific role was in drainage design for the linear park. She worked with the landscaping teams planning other parts of the park, including cycle paths and different community spaces. Drainage had to work across various surfaces and land-uses.
“The project was a constantly evolving design,” she said.
“It moved and shapes itself and re-shaped itself. That was part of the challenge and that was also where the fun was.”
Nugent’s career has it all. But she’d also like to see more female engineers.
“I’m passionate about the need for more female representation in this industry,” she said.
“There’s still a long way to go. I’d recommend to women to take on challenging roles and responsibilities, including opportunities outside of your current job description. Go to industry events in your free time, become a part of groups such as Limelight. The benefits you’ll get from the experience and the networks are enormous.”
Networking at a pub while she was studying law was what introduced Nugent to a new and thrilling career future. Now, networking while she’s in that career is introducing her to entirely new challenges and opportunities. Nugent would like to see more women taking advantage of the opportunities she is discovering.
“There are a lot of strong female leaders in the industry today and there will be a lot more in the future,” she said.
“I think that’s fantastic because, as I once heard somebody say, if you can see it, you can be it.”