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Boxing clever: BT's first female fibre-optic engineer

Newry mum-of-three Denise O'Neill swapped her desk job for a career installing broadband boxes as BT's first female fibre-optic engineer

By Stephanie Bell

Published 04/06/2015

Get connected: Denise O’Neill enjoying her job as a fibre broadband engineer
Get connected: Denise O’Neill enjoying her job as a fibre broadband engineer
Denise O’Neill relaxing at home

Denise O'Neill had never changed a light bulb before and barely knew one end of a screwdriver from the other when, aged 43, and after a successful career in administration, she decided to retrain as BT's first female fibre broadband engineer.

As if the challenge of such a dramatic change of career was not enough, Denise, from Newry, also had to juggle a busy family life with three young children - Zara, Ben and Ross - who were just one, two and six at the time.

With such a demanding home life she says that it was only with the support of her husband Ciaran (47), a careers adviser, that she was able to venture out of her comfort zone and attempt to master new skills which - by her own admission - were "entirely alien to me".

As the first woman, in what has been traditionally perceived as a man's job, she was warmly welcomed by her male colleagues who also supported her every step of the way as she struggled for many weeks to get to grips with her new role.

It didn't come easy but Denise was not to be put off, and today, she confidently carries her tool box into homes across Armagh and Down where she expertly links people into the superfast fibre broadband network.

Now 46, Denise had found herself out of a job three years ago after spending 26 years working in the office in British Telecom - the last six years of which she spent as personal assistant to one of its directors.

She says: "The company went through a reorganisation three years ago and my job went. I had the option of redundancy or retraining.

"I started with the company when I was 19 and I am very comfortable here because I have been here so long. My work colleagues are like an extended family and I know their wives and kids, so I grew up with BT. I've had all my dramas and high points with BT, so leaving and taking redundancy just wasn't an option for me.

"Over the years, my job involved working a lot with the engineers, which is why I decided to try that.

"It was a challenge to retrain, especially as I had no skills whatsoever. I had never held a screwdriver in my life and I'm not a DIY person, it was really alien to me and I found it really hard."

She swapped her smart office suits for tradesmen-style work gear and a box full of tools - which she had no idea how to use. Now, three years on, she is in her element driving around Co Down meeting new customers every day.

As she enjoys the freedom of interacting directly with the public and the satisfaction of linking them up to a new window on the world through the internet, she also marvels at the new skills she has learned.

But it was tough. With no DIY know-how at all and a lifetime spent in an office, Denise found it hard to master the art of drilling and delicate wire installation.

Her first weeks on the job were a tremendous stress as she also struggled to plan her routes, which often meant not getting home until late into the evening.

In fact, before she could even be accepted as a trainee, she had to step right outside her comfort zone with a daunting, rigorous assessment at the BT Training School in Antrim.

This involved proving her physical agility by climbing a nine-metre pole and passing an electrical test.

"Driving down to the assessment, I was so nervous, but very determined, and completely focused. If I didn't pass, I didn't get the job," she says.

"The actual climbing the pole ended up to be fantastic, with the BT safety equipment we wear and the fact that we are fully trained, I felt secure.

"It was an amazing experience and the adrenaline rush I had climbing the pole was unbelievable. The other tests seemed easier because the pole was the biggest challenge. I knew that day I wanted to steer my career into BT Engineering and I was very determined to make it work."

The first of many hurdles cleared, Denise faced a rocky road as she found the intricacies of fibre wiring difficult to master.

"At first, they suggested I go out with a fibre engineer to see what I thought of the job, and I liked it from the start," she says.

"Then I had to go to training school for two weeks, but what was taught there didn't really go into my head.

"They have a 'buddying' system where you then go out and shadow an engineer, which I did for four or five weeks, but I still really wasn't getting it. I just thought, 'I don't know what I am doing here'.

"I found everything very different and difficult. Even driving all round the country was a challenge and organising your day to get between appointments.

"The first six to eight months were a real struggle, but I had great support in the background. If I didn't know what to do or messed up, they would send someone out to help me.

"I was really nervous at first going into people's houses and worrying about not being up to speed and trying to appear confident, while inside not feeling very confident. I wasn't at all comfortable having to drill through walls, and I'm glad to say that now it is second nature to me.

"I think that despite finding it so difficult to learn, I was just really determined. From the start, I told myself, 'I am going to do this and prove that I can do it'."

With an early morning start of 8am, it falls to husband, Ciaran, to get the kids ready for school in the mornings.

Denise finishes at 4pm each day, allowing her to be there for her children at dinner time, homework and bed time.

In her first months on the job, she found her working day running over to 7pm or 8pm, and it was only with Ciaran's support that she managed to get to grips with a new career while raising a young family.

"My husband is absolutely fantastic and is really good with the kids. It is very much a team effort in our house," she says.

"I am leaving the house in the mornings, just as the kids are getting out of bed and Ciaran gets their breakfast and gets them ready for school.

"Fortunately, I am home at 4pm and can pick them up and be with them in the evenings.

"When I think back to the first months and not getting home until seven or eight at night, I wonder how I actually managed to do that."

There is no doubt the struggle was worth it. Today, Denise is a confident and experienced engineer who loves her job.

She knew she was taking on something tough when she started her training, but of all the departments she could have retrained in, this was the one she was drawn to: "I had worked with engineers all my life, that's what BT is primarily about, as a telecommunications company providing superfast broadband, and I wanted to be at the coalface.

"Superfast broadband had just started when I trained as an engineer and it was great to be part of that."

Training as the first woman "fibre to the cabinet engineer" was not something which caused much of a stir in British Telecom, where there are a number of women engineers in other departments.

However, out on the road, her gender did take some householders by surprise and in an encouraging way, as Denise has found that older women, in particular, are more comfortable inviting a female engineer into their home.

"Everyone in the company and the other engineers were really encouraging, but when I first started going out on calls, a lot of people opened their door and said they were surprised to see me because they were expecting a man," she says.

"I still get that, but they are always welcoming and it is lovely. I love the job.

"The day goes so fast and you do meet so many people and establish a bit of a relationship with them.

"The fear factor doesn't bother me at all now and I know when I have finished my job, the people are going to be pleased.

"The product is fantastic and I don't have to worry about it. The last thing I do is turn on the computer and let people see how it works, and I always get a great reaction.

"My area is Newry and South Armagh and most people I visit have never had broadband before. It does make such a difference to their lives, from children doing homework to just having that access to the internet.

"When you see the relief on parents' faces, it is fantastic.

"I am proud of myself for what I have achieved and I really enjoy it."

Trailblazers ... outstanding role models for women

  • Orla Corr (47) from Northern Ireland is executive chairperson and shareholder within the McAvoy Group, which is the UK and Irish market leader in off-site construction. Orla is one of the few women in the UK construction industry to hold a post at this level
  • Cambridge-born Judith Weir (61) was the first woman to be appointed as Master of the Queen's Music last May. Although she has achieved international recognition for her orchestral and chamber works, Weir is best known for her operas and theatrical works. She has held many top posts in music and received the Lincoln Center's Stoeger Prize in 1997, the South Bank Show music award in 2001 and the ISM's Distinguished Musician Award in 2010. In 2007, she was the third recipient of The Queen's Medal for Music, winning the Classical Music Award at the Ivor Novello Awards this year
  • Kathryn Bigelow (63) was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director in 2009 for The Hurt Locker as well as the Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Direction, BAFTA Award for Best Direction and the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Director. Kathryn also became the first woman to win the Saturn Award for Best Director in 1995 for Strange Days
  • January this year saw Libby Lane become the first female Church of England bishop to be consecrated. The Right Reverend Libby Lane (48) was made Bishop of Stockport in front of more than 1,000 people. The Church formally adopted legislation last November to allow women bishops, following decades of argument over women's ordination

Belfast Telegraph

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