Blazing a trail
“Right after my studies, I was already convinced that I wanted to get a job with a dredging contractor,” said IMDC business development manager Kathleen De Wit. “Not a desk job, but travelling the world as a superintendent - I really wanted to be on board the vessels, where the job is actually done, and you can see what’s happening. This was back in 1996.
“I got some strange reactions at that point. They just couldn't see how on Earth it could work -- a woman as a supervisor on board a vessel with 40 men, of different origin and nationality. Or, talking to clients or getting any work done from local subcontractors with big cultural differences. They didn’t always express it in so many words, but used a lot of arguments that weren’t that difficult to see through. I was asked, what if I met someone, if I decided to start a family, have kids, a dog? Were my fellow applicants, men, facing the same questions?”
At the time, there were a large number of dredging contractors throughout Belgium and the Netherlands, as many mergers had not yet taken place. However, De Wit found the same responses wherever she went. “‘We’d love to give you a job in our head office, as an engineer, we are happy to welcome you in our estimating department...’”
From her manner of speaking, it is immediately apparent how frustrating this must have been for De Wit. Initially interested with geology, she had planned to study this at university. However, as often happens at this stage of life, she switched fields to civil engineering, and then again, to mining engineering studies. De Wit became intrigued at the notion of travelling abroad to be on-location, with hard-hats and heavy machinery. However, with mining engineering, she anticipated staying too long time in the same remote spot, far away from where the action is. – “That was not my idea of working abroad,” she laughs. “I wanted to move from here to there, and preferably on a dredging vessel!”
After a long wait, the Belgian-national finally realised her dream. “It was only in 2001, after I got a job at IMDC and got the chance to join the 16th WODCON conference in Kuala Lumpur, that I coincidentally bumped into some people from the same dredging company where I applied the first time.” She smiles. “I guess I nagged them so hard and so long, about this missed opportunity for me but also themselves, that they finally offered me the job I always wanted!”
That year, De Wit became one of the first - if not the first - female superintendents who worked outside Belgium. This might not seem unusual some 20 years later; but at that time, extremely rare. Crucially, she and the company she worked for discovered that having a woman aboard a dredger would not inherently end in disaster. “The thing about not being accepted by the crew - what the management was most afraid of - actually went amazingly well,” she says.
De Wit is keen to emphasise that the culture of the industry has changed considerably in the last 20 years, stressing that it is “not like that anymore.” But more women in the dredging industry certainly is not the only thing that is different now. She notes that new entrants to the industry of all genders are now much more concerned with the environmental implications of dredging works, and this is adding an ethical dimension to a job that used to be purely an engineering one.
“Young people coming in now are much more preoccupied with our environmental footprint,” she says. “They really want to strive for sustainable solutions. We feel that as a company we have to put more of an emphasis on the impact of climate change and how to deal with this, and the nature of our contribution to the world has changed as well.”
“As a consultant, we get a lot more enquiries that are related to climate change. The obvious one is projects about adaptation to sea level rise, but there is also the inverse as well, projects related to drought, and other extreme weather events.
“As a result of that, you can see nowadays contractors investing in ever greener vessels, but also investing in a big environmental team. Twenty years ago, they didn’t have that, because they were seldom asked to already include an environment management plan in their offers, to think about mitigating measures, set up an environmental monitoring plan for follow-up during the works, etc. Now contractors and consultants come up with nature based solutions and try to find ways to contribute to, and not destroy, our ecosystems. Clients, from their side, tend more and more to encourage these efforts and where possible, validate them in the procurement process.”
As a result of growing climate change awareness, the nature of the work has also changed, from typical ‘simple’ maintenance and straightforward capital dredging jobs to much more complex projects, involving many different disciplines. Where much of the prior work involved creating, deepening or extending ports, today’s big projects are situated in the energy market. Offshore windfarms, cable and pipeline, and energy island works have exploded. ,…
This has yielded many new types of work, De Wit explains, causing dredging companies to become much more multi-faceted, with a menagerie of new vessel types entering the market from previously specialist sectors. “Contractors do not just own “simple” dredging vessels anymore - besides this, they now have cable laying vessels, heavy lifting equipment; a whole range of vessels that no dredging operator would have invested in before,” she explains.
No longer dealing with simple construction contracts, dredging operators deal with big EPC contracts, involving detailed engineering. “The latter,” she wants to highlight, “explains why it becomes increasingly difficult for consultants to recruit engineers. Dredging contractors are now fishing in the same pool to find similar profiles to perform design and engineering tasks.
“You could say contractors have become competitors to consultants, in some ways. But on the other hand, they’ve also become our clients. We are requested now to perform engineering and design studies not only for the end clients or project sponsors, but also for the contractors. They might have picked up part of the engineering themselves, but their main focus still lies in keeping their equipment busy executing works. For more specialized studies and modelling expertise, they still count on us.”
Boots on the deck
“It took a great deal of effort in the early years, to get to be a dredging superintendent. I consider it a privilege, to have experienced both sides; working for a contractor, and now, working for a consultant,” De Wit says. “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, and working in different companies and roles, I’ve met lots of interesting people, and built a network that still helps me deal with day-to-day challenges.
“I would certainly recommend a similar trajectory to all young people with interest in dredging. To them, I would say this: working in an office can be nice, but go outside first, and try to experience yourself how things go and work (or don’t work!) We really need people who have stood with their feet in the real world. Building and creating infrastructure offshore is exciting, complex and challenging. You really have to see it and experience it for yourself. Stay on site, preferably on board, and learn as much as you can. Be humble. Don’t position yourself as someone who is ‘the boss’ -- listen and watch – crew and colleagues have so much to teach you. Do this for five years. Then come back to Belgium and join IMDC!”