Anne Nderitu, 24, is the founder of Girls Boardroom Forum, a networking platform that links female engineers with mentors. The graduate of the Technical University of Kenya, with a first class honours degree in Aeronautical Engineering, speaks about the struggles of a graduate engineer and the future of Kenya’s aviation industry.
Did you always want to be an engineer?
Growing up I wanted to be a pilot. Then I realised I was very good in sciences and mathematics. I scored A’s in all subjects except English. I wanted a course that would make good use of my top grades in mathematics and physics as well as my passion for aviation. I settled for aeronautical engineering after a lot of research about aeronautical engineering while in high school. I had to ensure it was what I wanted to do. My uncle, who was an aeronautical engineer at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, also guided me through the field from the time I was very young.
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What does studying aeronautical engineering entail?
First of all, aeronautical engineering is not about training to be a pilot. I think this is something that young people picking their course need to understand. Aeronautical engineering is about design, manufacture and maintenance of aircraft.
The programme at TUK lasts five years involving intense math and physics lessons plus a lot of practical work. Out in the field, one can decide to be an expert in airframe and engines or specialise in the technical communication in the aviation industry.
Those who specialise in airframe and engines are tasked with ensuring that there is no mechanical damage on the outer part of the aircraft and that the engine is running well. This is purely a hands-on career.
How do women fair in this field?
This can be a challenging career for women who are not willing to forego lady-like comforts like keeping long nails and wearing expensive hairstyles because of the nature of the job. Practitioners have to make do with protective headgear and greasy overalls.
They are also required to perform heavy tasks like tying belts that require a lot of muscle. In my class of 18 students, there were just three ladies, which translates to a mere ten per cent of practicing professionals.
Thankfully, most men are supportive even if you have to put up with ‘manly’ language all day.
Is aeronautical engineering relevant in our struggling aviation industry?
True Kenya’s aviation industry is still very young compared to more developed countries. We are still struggling with implementation of guidelines that will regulate innovations around drones.
Drones can create many opportunities for innovative graduate engineers. Until then, more qualified people to steer growth even at policy level so that we do not lag behind other countries in the uptake of technology are needed.
What challenges face aeronautical engineering training in Kenya?
The biggest challenge that all public institutions face in training aeronautical engineers is lack of facilities for practical lessons. At TUK, we were lucky to have an expensive engine that was donated to the university for practical lessons. Not all universities have this. It is important that universities collaborate to buy a real aircraft for their students. Even an old one can work for lecture purposes.
Is it true that fresh engineering graduates are ill equipped with technical skills?
Lack of skills in fresh graduates is not just isolated to engineering graduates. Most universities offer only theory and leave students to their own devices to gather practical skills.
Accounting students only work on real books of accounts at their first job or internship. This is something that the industry ought to understand and be willing to invest in the actual skills training for their human resource fresh from university.
Where does a fresh aeronautical engineering graduate begin their hustle?
It is not easy to get a job instantly especially because there are very few aviation establishments in Kenya.
I advise fresh graduates to try graduate programmes offered annually by the top aviation authority even though they are few, just about 15 every year.
Others should accept entry-level maintenance jobs at aviation companies mostly located at Wilson Airport. Other airlines outside Kenya are also always announcing vacancies. Aviation graduates can also accept jobs in the telecommunications field and other unrelated fields to get exposure.
What inspired the Girls Boardroom Forum concept?
I started mentoring secondary school girls in Kirinyaga even before I joined university. It is at high school that girls start shying away from science subjects and mathematics.
That is why many fail to achieve entry requirements for courses requiring top grades in these subjects. For four years, I focused my attention on a particular girl who I saw move from poor grades to exemplary performance in mathematics. That is when I realised that girls could do better with a little mentorship. To help more girls achieve this feat, I set up a functional portal for Girls Boardroom Forum last year. I posted my photo in a graduation gown on LinkedIn and said I had just graduated with a first class honours in aeronautical engineering and that I was ready for the journey that lay ahead of me. The photo went viral and in no time, I had many networks, including requests from people who wanted me to share my academic journey. From the queries I received, it hit me that many students pick engineering courses without knowing what they are getting into. Some end up not completing the courses.
Those who graduate in the field face a bigger monster of transitioning from class to the field. The Girls Boardroom Forum comes in to help young women in the engineering field and those still in school to network with others who have succeeded in the field.
How does the forum operate?
Our online platform has a portal where students, graduates and people navigating career growth pose questions to experts in a wide range of fields, especially engineering. We have a dedicated team of ten experts in different fields who offer tips. We have two energy experts from Sweden, two IT experts from Kenya and others drawn from different countries.
We match mentors with graduates. We run a number of activities to empower women from marginalised areas socially and economically.
One way we have been doing this is by equipping them with digital literacy skills. We also collaborate with organisations to offer scholarships to girls from underprivileged backgrounds.
This way, we help them (organisations) implement some of their Corporate Social Responsibility activities.