“The more people you can impact in a positive way then the better everyone around you is,” says Renee Wootton.
Currently studying to be a pilot, Renee is an aerospace engineering graduate and Tharawal woman who works with not-for-profit group Power of Engineering to inspire school students and young people, particularly girls and Indigenous youth, to consider a career in engineering.
Renee, who entered the Qantas Graduate Program in 2016, says the challenging but rewarding profession offers immense opportunities for everyone.
“If you look at the world around you, it is 90 per cent designed by men,” she says. “So, if you had a rate of 50 per cent of the diversity that we’re trying to achieve, can you even imagine what the world around you would look like?
“We’re essentially trying to get more females and more diversity into engineering so that the world around us can be designed to suit more people.”
Ten years ago, Renee was a 15 year old with few ambitions or opportunities. She had recently moved from the Gold Coast to Marlee, a small town outside of Taree, to live with her grandparents and then her aunt and uncle. One day, her aunt showed her an advertisement for the Australian Air Force Cadets. With no previous knowledge or experience, Renee fronted up to the program’s introductory seminar and unexpectedly discovered a passion for aviation.
“I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I got to experience a whole different range of things through aviation. Attending competitions, going down and seeing aviation museums and meeting people who were currently enlisted in the air force and military.”
Information about professions such as engineering was scarce during her school years. Living in a town of 200 people she had “never seen someone from beyond Australia”. But, inspired by the cadet program, she went on to complete a two-year TAFE mechanical aeroskills course during high school.
“That was pulling aircraft apart and putting them back together again using power tools and all that sort of thing,” she says. “I loved it. I was very intrigued. It was the first time that I’d ever seen the real-life application of engineering.”
After high school, she moved to Kensington in Sydney to do a Bachelor of Aerospace Engineering, with Honours, at the University of NSW. She is now completing a post-graduate diploma in pilot studies and working towards her pilot’s licence through the Qantas Future Pilot Program.
Renee attributes much of her success to CareerTrackers, a mentoring and support service for Indigenous university students, that supported her studies and provided an opportunity to join Qantas.
“To be able to get through that degree and succeed and now have an amazing career is something that you’ll never be able to say thank you enough for,” she says. “Because I had that support given to me I think it’s essential to make sure that other people have those opportunities. Because it changes your life.”
An advocate for increasing diversity in engineering, she wants to break the stigma that it is a male-dominated profession. During her time with the Air Force Cadet program, she was struck by the low number of female and Indigenous cadets who continued into engineering or aviation careers. While at university, she was one of only five women studying aerospace engineering.
It was after meeting Felicity Furey, an engineer and social entrepreneur, that Renee became involved in Power of Engineering, a not-for-profit organisation founded by Furey that works to inspire young people to consider an engineering career.
“Felicity was on a mission to get as many females into engineering as possible,” Renee says. “It aligned very well with what I was trying to do.”
Renee began travelling to schools and youth groups across NSW to show what a career in aviation or engineering can be like. After a year, her ambition to include more Indigenous students was realised by aligning Power of Engineering with CareerTrackers.
So far, reactions to the workshops, which were held in more than 100 schools in 2018, have been extraordinary.
“Every time we run a workshop, we are overwhelmed by the response of the groups. Recently I ran a program in North Sydney, where we had 150 girls in Year 8 and it was incredible. We got a standing ovation.”
Apart from Sydney and NSW coastal schools, the program has reached a large number of regional students who travelled to Bourke and Temora from surrounding communities.
“It’s an experience and an opportunity that not every student or kid in regional areas will have, so if we can do our part and show them what’s available and educate them to make the right decisions for themselves, then the world can be a much better place.
“As soon as you start educating people who are quite young and at the point where they need to make decisions about what their future looks like and what subjects they want to take in school, it opens their eyes to the possibilities.”
Renee’s achievements and volunteer work haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, she was nominated for the NSW/ACT Young Achiever Awards for Indigenous Education, which recognised her work with The Settlement, a non-profit neighbourhood and resource centre based in Redfern. She was also nominated for the 2018 AFR 100 Women of Influence Awards.
Ten years after discovering a passion for aviation, completing an engineering degree, beginning a career with Qantas and now on track to become a pilot, Renee remains passionate about helping others to realise their potential.
“I think at the end of the day if you’re not helping other people, what are you doing?” she says. “It’s nice to be successful and appreciate your own success but don’t you want to bring other people along with you?”