Employed by TasWater as a Senior Engineer, Asset Strategy, Rebecca Sayles has eight years’ experience in the water and wastewater sector as both a regulator of water utility activities and as a water utility professional. A well-respected practitioner in the Tasmanian water industry, Rebecca won the 2017 Australian Water Association’s Tasmanian Young Water Professional of the Year award, which recognises outstanding contribution and commitment to the state’s water industry.
We recently caught up with Rebecca to find out more about her career highlights to date and her exciting award achievement.
I started my career working for the Environment Agency in the UK as an Environmental Planner in the Water Resources Team.
After a couple of years I decided to go back to university and completed an industrial engineering doctorate at Cranfield University working with United Utilities, a large water utility in North West England.
I was researching customer contributions to water sector planning and decision-making which was a very relevant research theme for the UK water sector at the time.
My next role was based on the other side of the world in Tasmania where I’ve been working at TasWater, the statewide water utility, for the past two years in the Asset Strategy Team.
I was thrilled to be nominated and then win the 2017 Tasmanian Young Water Professional of the Year award, which recognises those under 35 who have had outstanding career achievements to date, promoted careers in the water industry and raised awareness of water issues in the community.
My nomination focused on my contribution to the development of customer-focused outcomes for the TasWater strategic framework that could be tangibly linked to its asset management system.
These improvements to the strategic framework will hopefully set TasWater up for success in the future by enabling development of clear linkages between customer outcomes and infrastructure investment.
In both the UK and Australia, I have really enjoyed engaging with university students and recent graduates to provide mentoring and support across my key knowledge areas of the water industry.
Can you tell us about your current role?
I’m currently working as an Asset Strategy engineer.
It’s a pretty varied role but my main areas of responsibility are for the development of Strategic Masterplans for water systems across the state as well as statewide water supply-demand management.
Can you tell us a bit more about a recent project you’ve worked on — what are your key responsibilities, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced on this project so far and how have you successfully overcome these?
Over the last summer I gained some responsibility for monitoring water supply-demand risk for some of our run-of-river systems.
This was at times very challenging as the situation can be very dynamic.
I worked closely with a team of internal stakeholders from across the organisation to ensure effective communication of risk levels across impacted systems and identify trigger points for the deployment of contingency options or demand management measures.
What are the main things you enjoy about working in the utility sector?
It’s never dull — there are always new challenges to work on.
What are some of the main challenges facing utilities at the moment? What opportunities will arise from these challenges?
New technologies such as IoT devices and AI/machine learning are providing significant opportunities to create a step-change in the efficiency of delivering customer outcomes.
I think the challenge with this comes with how utilities adapt to take advantage of these opportunities particularly around business model and decision-making transformation, and workforce development.
Can you tell us about some of the mentors you’ve had throughout your career?
I was lucky enough to have some excellent role models when I was starting out in the sector and the example they set in the way they approached their work as well as the guidance they provided really stuck with me.
I’ve also got some great colleagues at TasWater who have helped me to get to grips with new processes and ways of doing things when I moved to Tassie as well as providing professional development and career advice.
Can you give us some insight into your experience working in such a male-dominated sector — have there been any particular challenges that you have had to overcome?
There are certainly some functions in utilities such as engineering, operations or project delivery that tend to have greater male representation but there are also functions within utilities where there can be greater female representation such as customer service or HR.
In terms of challenges I’ve faced, I’ve seen and occasionally experienced unconscious gender bias.
You can develop strategies to deal with this on a personal level but it’s great to see issues of diversity, equity and inclusion gaining traction at the organisational level and also sector-wide.
Do you see yourself continuing to work in the utility sector?
Absolutely — I enjoy the variety of work and the continual opportunities to expand my knowledge and skills.
Can you provide a bit of background on your life outside of work – any hobbies or interests you care to mention? Any activities you enjoy to balance the demands of a challenging professional life?
My life outside of work is currently taken up with renovating my house — I’m definitely getting some use out of the project management skills I’ve picked up during my career!