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Q&A: Talking with Tess Gillham, Principal Design Manager, Water

Tess Gillham shares insights on her role at Jacobs, what sparked her interest in a career in water and why she’s excited about the future of water in New Zealand.

At Jacobs, we think differently about the future because today’s challenges demand innovative approaches to deliver a more connected, sustainable world. With a fierce commitment to the spaces we inhabit, both globally and environmentally, we’re continually reinvigorating our efforts to be responsible stewards of the natural world, as we contribute forward-thinking sustainable solutions for our clients.

We’re getting to know members of our water team who are solving the world’s most pressing challenges in water resilience and sustainability to shape the water industry of tomorrow.

Principal Design Manager for Water Tess Gillham shares insights on her role at Jacobs, what sparked her interest in a career in water and why she's excited about the future of water in New Zealand.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do at Jacobs.

I have 20 years’ experience working as a water engineer in New Zealand. I’m a design manager at Jacobs, working on the country’s three waters – wastewater, stormwater and drinking water. I always joke that a design manager does the tasks that no one else wants to do. In a nutshell my role comprises of working alongside clients to understand problems, scoping potential projects, feasibility assessments, development of business cases, leading the design process (concept, preliminary and final design) with input from other specialists, technical reviews to ensure the design is robust and preparation of contract documents including technical specifications.

What sparked your interest in a career in water and engineering?

You could say that I fell into engineering - there was no planning as I didn’t really know what engineers did. I’m dyslexic and found at school that math, science and art subjects were much easier than the English-based subjects. My father suggested engineering, and I thought it sounded okay. It also appeared that at the time there were very few females; I like to be a little different from others.

I applied to the University of Auckland Engineering School and was accepted. All throughout my degree I favored the water papers so going into the water industry felt like  a foregone conclusion.

What’s your favorite part of your role?

I like making people’s lives better and improving the environment. In the water sector, we’re always trying to improve water quality, provide clean water, reduce flooding and myriad other things.

Tell us about an exciting project you have worked on or are working on.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on lots of exciting projects over the years. Most recently it’s been exciting being involved in the Central Interceptor project for Watercare. It’s an amazing project with amazing people involved and is the largest wastewater project in New Zealand When complete, the new wastewater tunnel will help reduce wet-weather overflows by up to 80% .The water quality improvements from the Central Interceptor project will be fantastic for all Aucklanders.

What are some of the key considerations that will help drive a more resilient and sustainable Three Waters sector in New Zealand?

There are many key considerations -I could go on forever! One of my favorites at the moment is building in the correct place. Land that’s subject to coastal erosion, sea level rise, flooding and the like is not always suitable for building infrastructure or other development. Doing so just creates problems for future generations. We should be questioning whether we actually need the infrastructure before building it. Is there another solution rather than just installing another pipe? In urban areas I personally think we could do more water reuse; this has a double whammy of reducing water demand while also helping to minimize downstream flooding. We also need to speed up the protection of our waterways.

What excites you about the future of water in New Zealand?

The proposed three waters reform excites me the most at the moment... If it goes through, I see so many opportunities. The reform will provide the chance to really improve New Zealand’s water infrastructure for future generations.

If you aren’t in the office, what would we most likely find you doing?

Currently I’m trying to train for my next adventure race in November. This involves some gym work, cycling and running. Ideally, I’d be mountain biking and trail running, but it is a little hard during lockdowns in New Zealand, so I’m having to do road running and cycling. I’m also trying to teach my son to drive - together we spend a few hours every week practicing driving around Auckland. I spend time watching kids’ sport - my daughter does athletics (pole vault and running), and my son plays rugby.

What do you enjoy most about being part of Jacobs?

The Jacobs water team is the best - it’s a great team to be part of. I also enjoy how globally connected Jacobs is. I like that New Zealand and Australia are combined; we have technical forums that span across both countries. Since working at Jacobs, I’ve found it easy to access international experts.

Join #OurJacobs team

What drives you drives us as we work to build a better world – together. At Jacobs, every day is an opportunity to make the world better, more connected, more sustainable.

We’re always looking for dynamic and engaged people to join our team. Bring your passion, your ingenuity and your vision. Let’s see the impact we can create, together.

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