Growing up, Elaine Solomon Pakinathan loved reading and watching documentaries about engineering feats around the world, marveling at the men and women who were part of building such incredible projects.
“I loved finding out about the design of the Aldar headquarters in Abu Dhabi, the Tripe-E class (container) ships, the Airbus A38, and many more. I knew all along that I loved engineering. I did consider a career in economics at one point because it was a career with more women representation.
“In the end though, I decided to follow my passion and choose engineering because it interested me,” says Elaine.
For the past three years, Elaine has been working as a wells intervention engineer with Shell in Miri, Sarawak.
“When I was offered a job as a completion and well intervention engineer, I had no clue what my work would entail. But I was told that I would have to do ad hoc work offshore and I immediately knew this was something I wanted to do.
“I’d heard stories of rig builds, watched documentaries about offshore installations and marine vessels being commissioned and decommissioned and here was my opportunity. I would be one of those unknown engineers that I so admired,” says the mechanical engineering graduate from Curtin University, Miri.
A wells engineer designs, builds and maintains wells for the production of oil and gas. A typical day for Elaine begins as early as 5.30am (if she’s on the morning shift; 5.30pm if she is working the night shift) and most of the day is spent out in the field, supervising and seeing that the work is carried out smoothly.
The job is challenging, she admits, but it isn’t because she’s a woman.
“One of the highlights of my career so far has to be seeing through a gas well perforation campaign from start to finish. There were many challenges along the way but it made the entire experience more fulfilling.
“But what I also enjoy is watching heavy lifts of rig equipment on site. When I say heavy lift here, I mean up to 193 metric tonnes. This to me is like a dream come true because I get to watch with my own eyes what I used to see only in documentaries,” she says enthusiastically.
Born and raised in Ipoh, Perak, Elaine does not come from a family of engineers. Her father is a retired hospital assistant while her mother is a retired bank clerk. However, Elaine and her two brothers all chose to become engineers.
“My brother William works in the power industry while Dick works in the aviation industry. My family has always been loving and supportive of me. From a young age, my parents taught us how to make difficult choices for ourselves. This helped me make difficult decisions … like whether to pursue a degree in engineering and a career as a wells engineer,” she explains.
Although being one of only a few women who work offshore, Elaine says she has never felt unsupported.
“It is true I am often the only woman among my team on the offshore rig. Sometimes it does feel odd to be the only woman but I enjoy the camaraderie in the teams I work with. There’s a buddy system and we are always looking out for each other.
“I really don’t think it is more challenging being a woman offshore. In fact, I think women bring a different perspective to the job. We approach problems differently and bring a different set of strengths. We also enjoy different aspects of the job,” she explains.
The toughest part of the job is being away for extended periods, but that would be the same for anyone working offshore.
“I have come across many young ladies who almost did not pursue a career in engineering because of the perception that the work is meant for men. While there has been a lot of effort to encourage women to pursue careers based in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths but the retention of women in these fields has proved to be a challenge.
“I have had a woman as my line manager and fellow wells engineer colleagues who are mothers. They have inspired and supported me in my career. I too hope to inspire the next generation to pursue their dreams,” says Elaine.
Her advice to young girls: pick a path that excites you.
“Think about whether you would still love your career if you have to wake up at four every morning to get to work. For me, this path excites me. Every well I work on is different. Each has its own challenges and I enjoy the day-to-day work because of the challenges. I am living my childhood dream,” she says.