The Engineering Trust

Women in Engineering - Sue Racster

Let's help shape the world and support women engineers for International Women in Engineering Day.
We speak to Sue Racster
Head of HR and Security Controller
Ultra CEMS and Energy

Let’s help to Shape The World and support women engineers for International Women in Engineering Day.
Sue Racster
Head of HR and Security Controller
Ultra CEMS and Energy

Sue Racster has been working in the engineering and manufacturing industry for over 7 years, starting as a Resource Capability Manager with Ultra Energy. Tasked with addressing the ageing workforce, setting up young talent pipelines for Energy, Sue was promoted to the Senior Management Team as Head of Human Resources (HR) in 2017. Her combined business units have over 500 FTEs. She is experienced with writing business cases, working to budgets, providing performance metrics and setting the agenda for change. Sue is a member of Ultra’s Corporate Social Responsibility Committee and is a passionate advocate for businesses having a positive impact in the communities in which they operate. Specialising in Education Business Programmes, Sue previously spent 10 years as Director of Operations for a Social Enterprise Company, a small business she established alongside the CEO. She holds a BSc Degree in Sports Science and Business Studies and a proud owner of a 5 meter swimming badge.   

Can you give me the brief history of Ultra and what the business does?

Ultra Electronics is a £1bn turnover British FTSE250 company providing engineered systems for defence, security, critical detection and control markets. The company employs more than 4200 people in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia offering specialist capability in all aspects of Engineering. Energy is one of Ultra’s five Strategic Business Units, a £40m+ revenue business operating across Nuclear, Aerospace and Industrial industries focusing on specialist critical detection and control applications. Energy has programmes worldwide but concentrates on the USA, UK and China territories where the domestic Nuclear Power industry has been historically strong.

Tell us about your job. What does a typical day at work look like for you?

This is my 7th year within Ultra Energy, having joined when there was 90 people and just 3 UK sites! I was hired at a time when Energy’s ambition was to invest in a ‘grow your own’ strategy and invest in a diverse and inclusive culture. This continues to be an important part of the HR agenda in Ultra.

I consider myself very privileged in the role of Head of HR. Crucially, I couldn’t do my job effectively without a great team of people around me. A typical day for me means plenty of interaction with my team where we set our priorities for the short, medium and long term.  Everyday tasks include things like answering queries from across the business. These can be anything from benefits, providing statistics to better inform decision making, information for new starters and leavers right through to counsel for colleagues when issues that are more personal arise. As a manager, an important responsibility for me is to resolve challenges for my own team. For example removing barriers, investigating solutions and clearing the way ahead to help them close down some of the trickier issues we face.

I work with people across the business who care and are passionate about making things better and ensuring success both for now and for the future. On a daily basis I’m involved in a lot of meetings and a face paced workload. This means I rely on the much underrated, but crucial basic skills such as time management, communication, agility and resilience to get me through and achieve what I need to. It’s certainly never dull, always challenging and always interesting.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many fantastic things whilst undertaking my role as Head of HR. A favour of these include; working with (and travelling to) our Austin site in Texas, bringing Apprentices and Graduates in to the business, working with Ultra folk from across the globe in strategic projects (and making many new friends along the way) and finally learning many new things every day. I listen to and learn from people I work closely with on a daily basis, our wider Ultra family and our business partners.  It makes for a much richer and enjoyable career.

How does your work affect people’s lives/the world around us?

Ultra Energy fundamentally exists to keep people and the environment safe. We work closely with customers, regulators, the Military, and World Governments to do so. If you’re based in the UK, Energy has a direct impact on generation of electricity therefore we technically help keep your lights on at home!

Tell us more about your career, where did it start and how have you come to being where you are today?

Upon Graduating from University I struggled to find full time work as the UK was in the midst of a recession. I realised that during that climate my first ‘career role’ would have to be put on hold in favour of simply earning some money. I got a job as a Life Guard at a local Leisure Centre. This proved to be a very good experience for me, working with the public, being responsible for people’s wellbeing and taking pride in tasks such as cleaning taught me humility, resilience and communication skills. Within a few years I was promoted to Duty Manager which meant full accountability for the site when on shift. 

Following the Leisure industry I joined Dorset Young Enterprise (DYE), a charitable organisation motivating young people to succeed in the world of work by equipping them with the work skills they need. I thoroughly enjoyed this challenge. I worked alongside a broad diversity of people and learnt how to deliver large scale programmes to young people.

A few years into DYE our local team made the leap in setting-up a Social Enterprise Business of our own. This was in response to demand for Enterprise Education and our desire and passion to deliver bespoke programmes aligned to client needs. We developed and delivered Education Business Programmes to enhance learning of citizenship and enterprise to primary and secondary school children. Our business was called The Enterprise & Skills Company (ESC) and I’m forever proud of what we achieved in our 10 Years. This involved engaging local business professionals in Enterprise Programmes and coordinating with schools to deliver relevant subject matter in meeting student needs. The engagement with local businesses is where I met Ultra. A year later I joined Energy to begin the third chapter of my working life.

Tell us about a specific moment or project that you consider a high point so far in your career?

In recent years it has to be our Apprentices. Every year we have a group Graduate we offer them the opportunity to apply in to the UK Nuclear Skills Awards. In recent years we’ve had a plethora of amazing young people apply and successfully make it to the Awards finals. I’m unbelievably proud of each and every one of them. All of our Apprentices have bought such a positive sea of changes within Ultra, from shifting the cultural, to new ways of thinking, new innovations and plenty of laughter along the way. Seeing someone come in straight from school, start their career and mature in to fine, upstanding professionals is very fulfilling.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how did you get over them? My biggest challenge has always been self-confidence. I continue to struggle with it from time to time, but with age comes experience and the ability to better shape your perspective and outlook. A very powerful thing is to care a little less about what others think and more about having confidence in your own conviction - backing yourself. Having good people around you, putting in the work and having a good sense of humour underpins everything J.

Do you feel there are enough opportunities for Women within the engineering sector? If so/not, why?

Simply, no and it’s for a plethora of different reasons. Engineering and scientific companies in the UK are trying very hard to rectify this issue and I would say that there has been significant progress in the last 10 years. It is proven that diverse (age/gender/ethnicity/background) teams are more successful – and from a business perspective, they are proven to generate more profit for shareholders.

I too am taking part in a leadership training program for women which actively aims to attract, retain and develop women leaders in our own organisation. We realise we have more to do, and we’re doing it. I too am a very strong advocate for engagement starting in schools, Primary as well as Secondary. Businesses and professionals like Rikki and I have responsibility to get on the pitch with STEM and partner with education to help inform and inspire our future generations. There’s a place for everyone from all backgrounds in STEM careers, all of which are very rewarding.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young Women who might be considering a career in Engineering or more widely in STEM?

Quite simply you won’t regret it! If you want interesting work, challenges everyday, meet people from across the world, travel and add value to everyone’s future then what’s not to be excited about?! I’m not technical but still have all of those experiences and opportunities just by working in the sector. Working within STEM is very much like an extended family, everyone is so supportive and friendly. It’s an industry you can stay in for life and yet transverse many niches. I agree with Rikki, just be yourself, work hard and have the right attitude. I don’t think it’s hard to be above average doing just those three things!

You are a champion of apprenticeships; why do you feel they are a good route into a career?

Apprenticeships are a great way to start your career. Not everyone suits staying within a formal, full time educational pathway. Apprenticeships provide a great blend of academic study with work based hands on learning and development. Value added advantages include; continuous work experience, networking with colleagues across the business, external customers and suppliers and time to mature in making the transition from education to the workplace. For the business, we know first that Apprentices contribute in boosting productivity, upskilling in a supportive hands on environment, bring about positive influences on our culture and increase diversity. Apprentices also tend to stay with the company for longer and are passionate about paying it forward. They play a vital role in bringing new generations through in to STEM industries - working with new apprentices and students to champion the benefits of working within this exciting sector. If Apprenticeships didn’t work, we wouldn’t have such a vibrant scene and so many STEM Ambassadors who began their careers via this route.

Who inspires you?

I’ve never had a singular person! Rather I have been fortunate enough to have had many people throughout chapters in my life who inspire me in different ways and for different reasons. From my younger years my swimming coach was very important role model in my life. Many of the traits and attitudes I have today are as a direct result of the swimming club I grew up in. I think it’s those around, almost covertly, who you later take a moment, and realise just how much they’ve enriched your life, opened your eyes to new ways of thinking and have stretched your comfort zones. People who demonstrate great humility, an unerring positive attitude and spirit for life inspire me. It’s easy to blame everyone and everything else for ‘stuff’, it’s those who embrace life and don’t become a victim to it who I truly admire.