Alison's role lets her challenge water companies to provide the best services to their customers. She reveals why she chose the energy and utilities sector and what she loves most about her job. Find out her journey from Chemical Engineer graduate to Principal Engineer at Ofwat.
Alison Fergusson, Principal Engineer, Ofwat
What do you do and where do you do it?
I am a principal engineer at Ofwat, based in the centre of Birmingham. Ofwat’s job is to set what customers get for their money and also the prices they pay for their water and wastewater services in England and Wales We need to do this because most people can’t shop around to choose their water company, unlike your phone or electricity company. So we are here to make sure the companies are kept on their toes and deliver for their customers and not just their shareholders!
Why is your role important?
In my role I have to analyse and assess all sorts of aspects of water company performance and investment. I challenge the companies to make sure they are stretching themselves to be the best they possibly can be, and are providing what customers want at prices that are affordable both to today’s bill payers but also tomorrow’s bill payers. Being an economic regulator there is a lot of complex economics in what Ofwat does, but my role as an engineer is to make sure we apply the economics in a way that fits the water industry operations.
"The sector is an exciting place for engineers. Water and wastewater services are so vital for all, and the technical challenges and opportunities are endless."
Which parts of the job do you enjoy most / find most rewarding?
I love the fact that in my job I can make a difference to every water bill payer in England and Wales. It is really rewarding to see companies rise to the challenges we set and meet new standards, like less leakage from their pipes, or reducing the number of pollution incidents from their pipes. We encourage each company to demonstrate it is the best but also the most efficient in the industry, so there is a healthy rivalry between them that means customers get improving services.
How did you start out? What qualifications would someone need to follow your career path?
I started out by taking A-levels at school – maths, physics, chemistry and further maths – I really thrived putting the STEM subjects together. I liked the combination of subjects and didn’t want to study pure science or maths at university, and I found engineering fitted the bill – applying science and problem solving thinking to real life, practical situations. So I went to university to do a degree course in chemical engineering.
Tell us about your journey from starting out to your current role?
My university course was a sandwich course which included a year in industry. I spent that year doing research in sewage treatment processes with Thames Water. I loved it! There was so much going on, and a real need to understand how to improve the processes that we were using. There was lots of time out on site wearing my overalls, operating pilot plants, and also some lab-scale tests. After graduation I went back to Thames, and joined the graduate training scheme. Then after a few years I moved to the midlands, and joined Severn Trent Water. I had a number of different roles, including designing new treatment sites, as well as operational roles, managing improvement activities on the ground. Then about 9 years ago, I saw an opportunity to join Ofwat and I jumped at the chance to influence how the companies behave, having seen it from the other side.
"I love the fact that in my job I can make a difference to every water bill payer in England and Wales."
What attracted you to join the energy and utilities sector?
Many of the people on my degree course went in to oil refinery, food or pharmaceuticals jobs. But I was attracted by the prospect of working on something absolutely fundamental to public health and protecting the environment. That’s why I decided to make my career in the water industry.
What do you think of career opportunities in the sector?
The sector is an exciting place for engineers. Water and wastewater services are so vital for all, and the technical challenges and opportunities are endless. There aren’t many industries I can think of other than wastewater treatment where you have to produce an excellent quality product at all times of day and night no matter what the quality or even quantity of the starting materials!
Would you recommend your job to a friend and why?
If my friend is up for a challenge, enjoys fast-paced working alongside different professions and thrives with variation in their work I would thoroughly recommend my job to them.