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Q&A with Sharon Harris from Forterra

Clay Technology magazine
5 Mar 2020

Forterra Plant Manager at the aircrete block production facility in Hams Hill, Coleshill, UK, Sharon Harris, speaks to Idha Valeur about her career in construction. Appointed to the position in July 2018, making her the company’s first female plant manager, Harris is responsible for overseeing the production of construction products including Thermalite aircrete blocks.

Tell me a about your background and how you got into manufacturing

I have worked in HR for more than 20 years. Previous to Forterra, I worked for GlaxoSmithKline in a HR role, during which time I was based for many years on a manufacturing site and worked closely with operations, so I had a good understanding of the challenges a manufacturing site faces.

What does your daily job entail?

Firstly, reviewing production output for the previous day and agreeing actions to improve the next 24 hours’ output. Every day is different – from dealing with the site’s future plans and looking at the people strategy, to budgeting, trials for the site, and so on.

How did you become Forterra’s first female plant manager?

This came about as a result of some discussions I had in my HR capacity, following which I was asked if I would like to take on the role of Plant Manager at Hams Hall. I saw this as a great development opportunity for me in a leadership role and to strengthen my skills base.

How has your job role strengthened your skills and technical knowledge?

This has been a learning curve in terms of understanding the process and the technical aspects behind this. Hams Hall is one of the larger sites within Forterra, and taking on the role of managing a large site, learning the process etc. is a challenge.

How does this role differ from your position as Head of HR?

In some ways it is not too dissimilar. It is all about interacting and engaging with the employees, taking them on a journey to drive the necessary improvements. The technical side of the role is very different from that of Head of HR and I still learn new things every day.

You have said you want to inspire more women to pursue careers in construction – how are you and Forterra approaching this?

By sharing our stories and successes. I am keen, where possible, to share my experience with others.

What has your experience been as a female plant manager?

It has been a fantastic opportunity and a learning curve for me. I have learnt a lot around the manufacturing process, and have taken time to understand the site and what changes are needed to move it forward. I would say the hardest part has been fully understanding the process and the production issues that arise at the same time as managing the site, implementing changes etc.

Are there any schemes, programmes etc. in the pipeline to attract more women into the company?

I am fortunate to work for a company that has a very open mind towards diversity and I am an example of this, having been given the opportunity to move into my current role. The company would love to attract more women into the business, which why it is important that we continue to promote women entering into the sector. We do have a graduate scheme in place which is proving that it is not just a male industry. Also, last year a female was recruited.

Why, in your opinion, is it important to encourage women to take up a career in what is often thought to be a male industry?

It is important to encourage more females to take this career path. They have a lot to offer and should not be deterred from doing so due to the current demographics of the industry. There has been a shift in attitudes over recent years towards women in manufacturing and we should continue to promote this and advertise their successes.

What has been your best experience in your current role thus far?

It’s all about the learning and new experiences. The HR side of the role comes naturally as this is what I have always done – it’s the learning around the process and engineering aspect which is a steep curve, when you have not been involved in this before.

What advice would you give women considering working in construction?

My advice would be do not be put off by the perception of it being a male industry. With confidence in yourself and tenacity, you will be successful.

What is your ultimate career goal?

For the immediate future, my concentration is on moving my site forward from a production perspective and making it a great place to work.

What’s next for you?

Firstly, I would like to demonstrate a sustainable change within the site around culture and so on, making the changes and ensuring these can be sustained going forward, and then who knows where that will take me.