Jessica Kahl

GradIEAust

Civil Engineer | Aurecon

Founder and Managing Director | Dream Big Australia

Ambassador | Institute of Public Works Australasia

Jessica is a civil engineer, entrepreneur and innovator with a track-record of empowering diverse, dynamic and sustainable value. In her civil engineering role at Aurecon, Jessica focuses on servicing client needs in capital-intensive industries such as Infrastructure, Resources and Government. Outside of work in her role as Managing Director at Dream Big Australia, she leads the delivery of engaging STEAM education events for young people so that they increase their participation, ability and aspiration to become future leaders in education, industry and innovation.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I first joined Engineers Australia as a student and supported my local chapter in Rockhampton by attending committee meetings and helping organise Women in Engineering events. These opportunities allowed me to connect with like-minded professionals, build a valuable network and develop an understanding of how to better support regional areas in promoting engineering. Since gradation and relocation to Brisbane, I’ve remained involved in Engineers Australia through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (“STEM”) Roundtable meetings and industry events such as the World Engineers Convention (WEC) I’ll be presenting at in November 2019.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
As a child, I grew up being incredibly creative, inquisitive and bold. I always had a passion for design and leadership, and soon discovered that engineering was a field I could exercise these passions and derive deep personal satisfaction while also adding value. In school, I was inspired by my involvement in robotics, my experience at the Engineering Link and through business competitions which sparked my passion to make a difference.

Since pursuing engineering as a career, the pathway has fuelled my ambition to powerfully lead change, challenge norms and shape ideas for the benefit of society. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from and be empowered by incredible leaders in our industry. Little did I know that I would be so passionate about the career that I would create a not-for-profit to engage and educate young people about career opportunities in STEAM so that they too could see how rewarding and exciting the profession is.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
I am unique for having completed my civil engineering studies in regional Queensland and for undertaking leadership initiative at such an early point in my career. By doing so, I have had the unique opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people.

I am passionate about ensuring the next generation is provided with opportunities to increase their participation, ability and aspiration in STEAM. This passion has stemmed from my own experiences where I only discovered the career of engineering in late high school.

After having my own rewarding experiences in the profession in 2014, I was inspired to create more opportunities for young people to connect to the industry, be mentored and gain a better understanding of career pathways in STEAM. This is how Dream Big Events were born.

By ‘bringing industry to the classroom’ in regional Queensland communities, I hope Dream Big Australia and all those who have supported our journey leave a legacy and empower the next generation to become future leaders in education, industry and innovation.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
The most ambitious challenge I’ve undertaken is starting a not-for-profit to encourage participation, ability and aspiration of young people so that they can better understand the opportunities available in engineering.

At 19, I decided I wanted to create ‘industry to classroom experiences’ which provided learning and mentoring opportunities to year 10-12 school students in regional Queensland. The idea was sparked after realising how rewarding and exciting the engineering profession was, and how the career pathway wasn’t actively promoted in school. With a team of passionate engineers, we began running 1-day Dream Big Events at CQUniversity Australia Campuses in regional locations.

Starting a NFP has been incredibly exciting and rewarding, yet equally challenging. I’ve gained an in-depth understanding of governance, strategy, partnerships and project management. By coupling these skills with my understanding of the industry, I’ve worked with our “Dream Team” to create learning and development activities to inspire a talented pipeline of leaders. During this experience I have realised the untapped potential we have as an industry to collaborate and support our next generation in making informed career choices.

The hard work is worth it, especially when you see young people being empowered after realising a newfound passion.

“I may be the only girl in my grade doing engineering, but I’ve fallen in love with it. Engineering wasn’t something I thought of trying before [Dream Big Australia] and its wonderful the board members who set up so many events are encouraging and showing females what engineering is like. So, I thank you immensely for everything you guys do” ~ Dream Big Event Participant.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
To drive shared prosperity, we need to make sure that everyone can access educational resources needed to succeed in our 21st century. At Dream Big Australia, we are engaging with companies and academic institutions through innovative partnerships. Through our partnerships, we have joined forces with leading companies to ignite young people’s passion for STEAM, develop their skills and knowledge and give them the opportunity to learn from, and connect with leaders in the industry. That way, students enter study and graduate with the most in-demand skills, and businesses have a stronger talent pipeline.

Beyond these partnerships, Dream Big Australia also works with universities and schools to provide engaging experiences to young people to give them critical, real-world experience. We’ve collaborated with educators and professional services experts to create free 1-day events which explore the various careers in STEAM relevant to the skills of the future.

Of course, what is taught in tertiary study is only relevant to students who can enrol in the first place. That’s why it’s also important for our industry to invest in the education of their communities and help reduce the barriers to higher education, by helping young people navigate the process of choosing an exciting and rewarding career. That’s why Dream Big Australia invests time and resources to help students in regional areas of Queensland to see higher education as a realistic path.

The role of companies investing in talent and helping young people break down barriers to development and successful careers has never been more important.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
Computers and the internet have accelerated the path for engineers to advance at a scale that would have been unprecedented 30 years ago. Automation is on the rise, and digitisation is already influencing the labour market’s prosperity. With the combination of a more diverse workforce, engineering will not just advance to autonomous cars and affordable space travel, but to a concept we can’t imagine today. The future is coming, whether we’re ready or not.

In saying this, we are preparing the next generation of leaders for careers that do not yet exist. The future will allow us to be increasingly more efficient and connected – our future professionals will learn, live and work differently. As the mentors our emerging leaders look up to, we can help them navigate the changing pathways, who have not yet entered the workplace, by embracing storytelling and better communicating the rate and scale of change taking place.

With great change comes great opportunity. Let’s make the most of it by encouraging the next generation to embrace pathways where they are ambitious in developing capabilities, not titles.

Who is your engineering hero?
My engineering hero is not a single person, in fact, my heroes are a collection of many inspiring people I’ve encountered throughout my life. These engineering heroes are the mentors and peers who have been willing to share their insights and experiences in the industry with me. They are the people who have your best interests at heart. They ask the questions you didn’t know you needed to answer. They light your fire and passion and they are the ones who always have your back.

I’m very thankful to my mentors and peers as they have instilled the belief in me that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to, they have given me the confidence and capability to push my thinking. I’m so grateful for their guidance and support – and look forward to passing on the valuable lessons I’ve gained to my mentees, so they too can dream big!

Image Credit: Applegum Studios, www.appegumstudios.com