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'I gave my 40s to Hinkley and will give my 50s to Sizewell’

Dr Sarah Williamson, Sizewell C civil programme director, tells Insight Energy about her mission to make the construction industry more agile and diverse, and lessons she brings to Suffolk from Hinkley Point C.
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Dr Sarah Williamson, civil programme director at Sizewell C. Pictures: EDF

Transformation drives Dr Sarah Williamson. Leading the £20 billion Sizewell C construction project, she is passionate about its potential to change lives, as well as energy generation, the regional economy, communities and businesses for the better. 

“We have a massive opportunity at Sizewell C to transform,” the director of civils said. 

But no amount of detailed planning, sophisticated technology and dedicated workers will create her vision if communications aren’t up to scratch. 

Clear effective communication sits at the top of every list for Sarah – for on-site teams, the wider communities, businesses, schools, colleges and individuals. And everything starts and finishes with bottom-up communication. 

“Briefings from the top and cascading down don’t land where they need to land. Bottom-up makes sure that everything is done for people doing the work and they understand why they are doing it and where they fit into the bigger picture,” she said. 

“From the start, everyone needs to know where they fit into Sizewell C. At Hinkley, when we visited one of the quarries supplying the stone, one guy had a filthy digger bucket. When it was explained where his role fitted and what he was doing his job for, he suddenly understood the importance of what he was doing towards the project, immediately cleaned his digger and it was always spotless from that moment.”  

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Getting the right information to the right people at the right time in clear, easy-to-understand messaging is essential. 

Open channels with the supply chain and community about opportunities for contracts, jobs, training and prospects for young people by apprenticeships, retraining and what has been achieved in communities on previous projects are as crucial. 

When work starts, Sarah will be responsible for the civil engineering programme, from the road schemes to on-site infrastructure. Around 2,600 local people will be employed on the project during peak construction, while there is a lot of work being done with local schools and colleges to prepare young people for the opportunities and make sure the right training is available. 

It is a mammoth challenge, and one she knows well, bringing lessons of five years as technical director at Hinkley Point C to the Suffolk replica. 

Sizewell C comes with big promises – £14 billion investment in the UK, £125 million per year into the local economy during construction and £40 million during the 60 years of operation. Plus 5,000-8,000 new local jobs during the nine-12-year build and 900 permanent jobs generating low carbon energy for six million homes. 

“This is a public service, and we are duty-bound to do it as efficiently as possible for the consumer. We need to demonstrate 20-30% cost reduction, which is another challenge. 

“Our philosophy is local, regional and national. The first works give great opportunities for businesses. Sizewell C Consortium is working with the Suffolk Chamber to maximise industry benefit. We have got some great opportunities for real collaboration. I would like to work with local organisations rather than client to contractor, so we all work as one seamless team, which goes back to ‘bottom-up’ again.”  

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Hinkley Point C recruited 36% of its workforce locally against a target of 34%. Sizewell C aims to recruit at least a third of the construction workforce from the local area. 

“Hinkley really has transformed lives. Many of the things we can do in construction can be trained from scratch. People can start with us and end up being in charge.”  

People like Leanne. 

“Leanne was a cleaner on a concrete batching plant at Hinkley. She had no real qualifications, lived locally, and was employed by a company that provided cleaners to the site. 

“In conversations with people in the team, she was spotted as bright with potential and was offered a job in the admin team. She flourished and is now in charge of scheduling.”  

Sarah, named as fifth in the top 100 Most Influential Women Leaders in Engineering UK and Europe 2019, wants to see the same at Sizewell. 

“We have a team engaging with the local community to give work and training to those hard-to-reach people who have not had the opportunities and chances. We need to represent the communities that we are in, not just gender or ethnicity but diversity of thinking. We need to build a place where everyone is welcome.”  

Modernising the construction industry to be more agile and diverse, challenging the dawn-to-dusk culture and the demand for support and office teams to be on site has been “a personal campaign for years”. 

“Suddenly, it has happened because of the pandemic. We really need to change. If we can bring people into the industry without having to work a 14-hour day, we’ve achieved something.”  

At Hinkley, Sarah designed a 40-hour week, with alternate long weekends; a move considered revolutionary by traditional leaders. 

“I was told ‘You can’t do that. This is not how the industry works.’ We must do this. It forces that little bit more thinking about what you do. The team loved it but there was some resistance in the leadership. 

“A lot of construction is custom and practice, which are some of the greatest things about the industry, but some areas really need to break free. 

“Fairness is really important to me too, giving people a chance and being open to everyone. This is why we need to address working hours, style and the traditional ‘man’s world’ culture. One of the reasons I love construction is that you see a cross-section of people who could have been or could become anything.”  

Sarah is passionate about women reaching their stride in their 50s. 

“I feel top of my game. I gave my 40s to Hinkley and will give my 50s to Sizewell.” 

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 To attract young people to the 1,500 apprenticeship opportunities, new-style learning taps into their life references. One new-style apprenticeship is geospatial engineering, which taps into young people’s computer games expertise. They learn to map the best position to set out a site and build to scale in the right place.  

Sizewell C demands a different approach because of its location and infrastructure. “We want to cut road use so that 60% of the construction materials are transported by rail and sea, significantly reducing the number of Sizewell C HGVs on local roads.”  

To find out about opportunities on Sizewell C, register with Suffolk Chamber of Commerce at: www.suffolkchamber.co.uk/business-opportunity-alert/sizewell-c-supply-chain-portal