YOUNG women flocked to Swindon College in North Star for International Women in Engineering Day on Friday.

They visited workshops, listened to presentations from staff and guest speakers and took part in hands-on demonstrations ranging from water rocketry to welding with chocolate.

Russell Selwood was there throughout the day, enthusiastically answering questions and proudly showing off the department he has led for 10 months.

His passion for all things engineering-related dates back to his childhood in Poole, Dorset.

“As a young child I used to take things apart all the time. I couldn’t guarantee I’d always get them back together,” he said.

“There were pushbikes, motorbikes – I had a very high passion for anything and everything that I could find or take apart that was in the shed. It was intriguing.

"My grandmother used to live next door and she used to have one of these sheds which was literally from the 1940s, so there were numerous different things.

“That was my springboard, really.”

It is an enthusiasm he delights in sharing to this day, both in ordinary college life and at special events such as International Women in Engineering Day. Some 10 per cent of the college’s engineering students – the national average – are women, but the figure is rising.

“The whole reason for the International Women in Engineering Day is to inspire young women to think about and also maybe have an interest in engineering,” he said.

“If we think about it, in the ‘40s most of the engineering was done by women anyway, due to the war. They were mostly in munitions, and making most of our equipment. So I feel that all throughout history, women have contributed to engineering.

“What I would like to see is that coming back to us. Coming back to Swindon, coming back to the UK itself.

“My whole goal is to target the younger generations, to inspire them to move into engineering-type roles.

“We need engineers. We’re crying out for them. We could have a massive skills shortage gap which, quite frankly, worries me.”

Russell’s mother worked in catering and his father worked for Pirelli as a cable jointer. An uncle worked for Boeing.

By his own cheerful admission Russell was a “Joe Average” school student, although he was in the A-bands.

He excelled when he began training for what he soon realised was a vocation, engineering. He did so at the suggestion of his father.

His first training was at the Engineering Industrial Training Board in Poole, which is now Bournemouth and Poole College, and whose programme included links with employers.

“My forte was fabrication and welding, and I went into a place called Robin Hawkins Engineering, which was a very small industrial unit on West Quay Road in Poole. It was very cold, very industrial and making general fabrication – everything from boats to welding structures,” he said.

“I loved it. I absolutely loved it.”

There were jobs with other engineering firms as he expanded his qualifications and experience. An especially happy time was spent with a Christchurch company making commercial and military aircraft.

His proudest moments there included fabricating a bomb aiming window frame for the last airworthy Lancaster and refurbishing air brake flaps on one of the last airworthy Vulcan jet bombers.

“To me it felt like I’d found my role in life. It was an absolutely wonderful job,” he said.

Eventually, feeling he needed to move on, Russell applied for a job as an assessor in engineering at Bournemouth and Poole College. He soon discovered that education was also a vocation, and has now been an educator for 16 years.

He came to Swindon following a long stint at a college on the Isle of Wight, where he headed five departments, and has experience as an assessor, instructor, lecturer, senior lecturer and team leader.

The Swindon College role was attractive partly because of the town’s engineering heritage, but mostly because of the variety of engineering disciplines covered and the strong links with employers such as BMW and Honda.

The college is one of relatively few across the country to offer specialist Trailblazer courses giving apprentices skills specifically tailored to employers’ needs.

“We are heavily employer-led, which is great. It means the ideal circumstance of catering for the demand of Swindon itself and the local areas,” said Russell.

He has ultimate responsibility for a student roll which usually numbers between 150 and 160.

They are full and part-time students aged 16 and up, ranging from foundation course members and apprentices to young people hoping to study engineering to undergraduate level and beyond.

“I’m so, so happy with Swindon College. Engineering is growing and growing, and it makes me so excited about the next coming steps, the next years and how we can progress,” he said.

Russell feels his background in practical engineering is immensely helpful in his current role.

“I’ve taught on some of the programmes this year, which has been great,” he said.

“Letting staff know and also letting students know that you come from that background, I think, is majorly important.

“I’m itching to get back in there and do some welding or some machining – just knowing what the students are going through and what the staff are going through.

“I know what they’re up against, and I know what they’ve got to get done.

“I think that’s vitally important – to know that their manager is somebody who’s rounded and has done the job.”

His ultimate aim is for every potential engineer, irrespective of their background, to be given a chance to explore that potential.

“We’re putting on more events so we can capture these people, to show them,” he said.

“If you’re that person in that shed, who’s taking things apart, there’s possibly a career in engineering for you.

“That’s the key – if you’re starting to tinker with stuff like I did, then that’s possibly where your passion lies. If that’s the type of thing you’re doing, then that’s where you should be.”

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