Saira had other ideas. Three degrees later and with her own business thriving, her work has taken her from sandwich shops to submarines.
Saira’s passion to get young people interested in apprenticeships makes her our latest Engineering Hero.
Saira Dar is the invisible engineer. If she does her job well, nobody should know she exists. Dressed in overalls, she moves unnoticed around factory floors or clambers up to a rooftop to aim her thermal camera at objects that demand little attention from others.
She may scan something as straightforward as a wall or as complex as an assembly line. She could fix her camera on a clutch of mechanical gears, a distribution board or perhaps a loose bolt at a gas terminal. Most days, she quietly collects information and signs off inspection reports. Some days she saves her employers millions of pounds and weeks of downtime.
Her job requires her to operate in “stealth mode”. Saira, 45, uses her engineering knowledge not to build or design things, but to make sure they don’t break. For engineering managers like Peter Ford, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers member who nominated her for this feature, this means reliability, staff safety and “world-class downtime figures”.
“Without people like Saira,” says Ford, “we would have more failures in engineering and production losses.”
Saira can be the first hurdle to a new project or the last line of defence. Like ceiling sprinklers that sense fire, or an undercover agent on an aeroplane, if she breaks cover, something has usually gone wrong.
It wasn’t always like this. Saira wasn’t always invisible.
She grew up in Reddish, Stockport, in Greater Manchester. Her parents were strict on her and her two sisters, but always pushed their girls to make their own decisions.
It was a happy childhood. Her mother is English and her father is Kenyan, which made her different. She didn’t resent it and it caused her no trouble. In fact, she loved the tales her father told about his homeland and was inspired by how he had started out sweeping the floors of a biscuit factory and retired as the factory’s manager, having enrolled himself in college. But all the way through school, she felt like she stood out.
Saira attended an all-girls high school in an era when “girls did girl things and boys did boy things”. Saira was not a “girly girl”. She liked to spend her weekends fixing the family car with her dad. She enjoyed technical work and didn’t understand why a school counsellor was recommending that she should become a nanny or a secretary. She couldn’t even type.
Saira Dar at work (Credit: Jennifer Bruce/ Saira Dar)
Things have changed now, but research shows that women still make up less than 10% of the engineering workforce while, by some estimates, the industry needs 250,000 new employees a year, for seven straight years, to fill the skills gap. The IMechE’s reports show that women suffer discrimination in the workplace and not nearly enough are earning engineering degrees or entering apprenticeships.
Saira’s career began with an apprenticeship with Shell Chemicals. She spotted an advert in a newspaper and went for it. Of the 24 places filled that year, she was one of three girls. Her days began at 4.30am. The commute took two-and-a-half-hours each way, but Saira, 16 at the time, had found something special – a world where she belonged – and she wasn’t about to lose it.
“It was a real turning point in my life,” she said. “I did things I never dreamt of doing. I saw an opportunity to thrive and it brought out a real competitive edge in me.”
Four years flew by and, just as Saira was preparing for the next chapter, the early 1990s recession hit Britain. None of the apprentices was offered a job and Saira was forced back into studies, paying for them by working in retail, selling everything from shoes to wallpaper.
The years that followed were difficult but rewarding. Saira obtained her HNC in mechanical engineering and an engineering degree. She met her husband on a blind date, had her first daughter (she has two now) and saved up for a house. She searched for a way back into engineering and eventually found it by joining a paper mill and stumbling, by chance, into condition monitoring. Before long, she discovered an interest in thermography.
Saira went on to work for a condition monitoring firm for a decade before starting her own company, 3i Condition Monitoring Consultancy. In the evenings, she studied towards a business degree. She travelled to America and returned with a level 3 thermography qualification. At the time, she was one of seven people in the UK certified to do the top-end work she was doing.
Later, Saira added a teaching degree to her arsenal. Those who work with her say what makes her special is that she is passionate about passing on knowledge. She doesn’t just hand over reports but takes time to discuss them.
Ford calls her an inspiration, while Tim Stacey, the supply chain director at Coca-Cola European Partners in Norway, says Saira is “super friendly, adaptable and focused”.
“She is clearly at the top of her game,” he says. “She often finds and resolves issues that many others with less experience miss.”
Rhisiard Jenkins, managing director of software firm Relcom, says its clients ask for Saira by name. “Her expertise and passion provide an unparalleled complement to our services and software,” he adds. “She has provided our clients with significant cost and efficiency benefits for many years.”
With Brexit looming and companies retrenching, Saira sees the transfer of skills as a way to fill a growing hole.
“That’s what I enjoy about my job, is that people see me a little bit differently and can get more out of me than from the average person with a camera. It’s not one-dimensional.”
Saira teaches apprentices she meets in the field and has attended school careers days. She likes to encourage children – her own included – to think deeply about everyday objects, such as toilet paper, and what it takes to create them (from the chemical treatment to the massive machines used to package the rolls).
“The more you start to break it down, the more interested they get,” she explains.
Saira believes the engineering industry is witnessing a revival of apprenticeship programmes. She says it’s crucial for young engineers to see that they can branch off to pursue just about any interest. There are few limits, she says, once they find their passion.
Every detail matters
A few years ago, Saira was hired to be an expert witness in a court battle between HM Revenue and Customs and Subway, the sandwich chain. The dispute was over how much VAT Subway had to pay, given that hot sandwiches and pasties are taxed differently from cold ones. Saira was brought in to capture a series of heat readings and present them in court.
More accustomed to working with machines, it was the most unusual job of her career as she had to set up a science experiment inside a sandwich shop. There was a strategically located table, and each sandwich on the menu was prepared, carried there, sliced up and tested. Every detail mattered, such as how many seconds had passed or how much heat a leaf of lettuce reflected.
Saira also once received a request to train engineers working on Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, and to produce some thermal imaging procedures. To better understand the space constraints, she was invited to visit a submarine.
“It didn’t blow me away,” she jokes. “It is really hard to work in that space.”
Whether it’s a nuclear submarine or a paper mill machine, the principle remains the same: above-average heat is a symptom of a problem. Saira’s job is to diagnose the underlying cause and to predict what will happen if the component breaks.
An example of the images Saira produces while analysing machines (Credit: Jennifer Bruce/ Saira Dar)
She’s been running her company for 13 years now and shows no signs of slowing down. To do a job in Hertfordshire, which is almost 200 miles away from her home and office, she is on the road by 5am. That same afternoon, she will get a call to do an urgent project in Wales. By the time she gets home it will be late and her family will be asleep.
Saira sees how technology – such as simulation – is changing her industry, but her feeling is that there will always be a space in engineering for human interaction. Her clients clearly value her expertise but also her human touch. Saira says that a drone can hover over a building with a camera, but she still prefers to take the stairs and spend the time talking to someone who knows the structure.
Wherever she can, Saira encourages women to come into the industry. There’s a long way to go, she concedes, but she is seeing better representation of women in traditional workspaces.
“I say to women that it is tough out there and you do have to hold your own,” Saira explains, knowing all too well what it’s like to stand out. “Find things in common, bring down barriers and get people around you to relax. Once they see that you add value they won’t see you as being that different.”
Saira may call herself invisible, but she is far from shy or introverted. She drives a giant, black Ford Ranger pick-up truck and enjoys talking about football (she’s a big Manchester City fan). She is comfortable about standing in front of a class for up to a week at a time. She’s a great storyteller who doesn’t try to cover up the blemishes of life.
Her big hope for engineering is that companies reach out more to promote apprenticeships. Visible or invisible, she knows there are many people out there with great potential.
“If you’re good at it,” she says. “The opportunities are endless.”
The Engineering Heroes features explore the careers of engineers nominated by you – the readers of PE. If you know someone worthy, get in touch.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.