Fresh out of university and not afraid to get her hands dirty, Project Engineer Valentine Van de Putte shares her experience as a superintendent.
Despite studying aerospace engineering in her first degree, Valentine Van de Putte, a Project Engineer at Jan De Nul Group, developed a passion for the renewables industry and for playing a role in the energy transition. “I realised I was not so keen to work on the design of the latest aircraft or launch the next satellite, but instead wanted to work on a younger, progressive industry where innovation leads the way. I wanted to contribute to something new and to help find some of the answers to the energy transition problem.”
Valentine is currently working in the offshore wind world on the Trianel Windpark Borkum II project in the German Exclusive Economic Zone, but she is enthusiastic about other types of green energy such as wave kinetic energy.
This enthusiasm to help build a cleaner world meant that she decided to explore opportunities in the wind industry after graduating in aerospace engineering from Delft University of Technology. Valentine embarked on two Masters, one in Offshore Engineering and a second in Wind Energy Technology, as part of the European Wind Energy Master Programme. And between the two degrees, Valentine wanted to find out whether a career on the operational side was suitable for her so she entered an internship programme at an international offshore contractor.
“Most people get involved in the R&D side of the wind industry initially, but it is often very theoretical, I wanted to do something more operational and go offshore. I want to learn from the practical side of the industry, and take these lessons with me in a later stage of life, to optimise the design of the next generation of wind turbines.”
A farmer’s daughter, Valentine explains that she is well used to hard work, long hours and working with her hands, but she hadn’t necessarily expected this to lead to a career offshore. “I was brought up deep in the Belgian countryside, nowhere near the ocean. But I started working at the offshore contractor and absolutely loved it! There are always different people onboard and when you finally see a wind farm being built after maybe two years of preparation time, it is fantastic.”
“On the operational side I also think you learn more because you have to solve issues on the spot. Then you can take the lessons learnt and use them for other projects in your career.”
Following her graduation in November 2018, Valentine joined the Luxembourg-based Jan De Nul Group - a client of Atlas - and she hasn’t looked back since. Initially, Valentine attended the introduction training programme at the company where she learnt from more experienced colleagues about the dredging industry and wind energy sector. And pretty soon she discovered she would be deployed as a superintendent onboard one of the company’s jack-up installation vessels, the Vole au vent, where she is pictured with other Atlas professionals.
Becoming a superintendent
“Jan De Nul has given me a lot of responsibility fresh out of university and I am relishing this opportunity,” she emphasises.
Initially, Valentine has been involved in the preparations for the wind farm, which will comprise 32, 6.33MW wind turbines, and then she became superintendent. “My job is extremely varied. I have to investigate how the project will be executed, procure material, check that all the personnel are properly trained and certified. You need the technical knowhow but also you have to be commercially savvy. As a superintendent, you are the ‘connection point’ between the crew and the technicians, and between the client representative aboard and the surveyors. Whatever the issue is, you need to take care of it, whether it concerns personnel or a contractual topic. It makes my job very exciting.”
A ‘typical’ day is hard to come by, she laughs. “If I am in the office I am mainly working with other engineers and superintendents. Offshore I always work the night shift. Operations continue 24/7. At 1800 hours I would be in the pre-start meeting. Normal practice in these meetings is that we as a team – technicians, superintendent and client – summarise the tasks ahead, but I also always try to highlight safety attention points and to mitigate any obstacles that the team may face. I communicate with the client and keep a track of progress, and together with the team of technicians, we seek solutions for any problems we had during the night. The time flies by! Around 0600 hours I am typically doing paperwork and then I am lucky to get back into bed at 0800 hours.”
Valentine stresses that she never wanted a 9 to 5 job and is not daunted by spending several weeks offshore. “It is easy to fill 12 hours. That is life offshore and I enjoy it.”
Finding solutions on the spot
It is no problem being in a traditional ‘man’s world’ either. “I have always been one of the boys. Initially the crew were startled as there are very few female superintendents. But as a farmer’s daughter tough work and a very direct means of communication are no stranger to me. There is a freedom offshore; you have to be able to be flexible and solve problems. Things always turn out a little different than you expected.”
Additionally, every wind farm project is different, she stresses. “Sometimes they deploy monopiles and sometimes jackets. But we have to find the right solution that fits the design and prepare the most efficient way to perform the installation works offshore.”
Valentine admits that she was absolutely staggered the first time she saw a 75 m offshore turbine blade. “Often people don’t realise how big these things are! They have only seen onshore turbines. The 6.33MW turbines on the current project are 152 m in diameter. And those are not even the biggest ones around anymore. The newest generation is 9.5MW and 164 m in diameter. That is more than two A380 airplanes winglet to winglet!”
Valentine would eventually love to manage an offshore wind project, and says she certainly recommends the renewables sector for an exciting career. However, she warns it is not for everyone. “You have to have a thick skin, be able to think on your feet and most of all, be flexible.” She was very pleased that two girls came up to her at a recent wind energy event saying that they had never seen a female superintendent before, and seeing Valentine was making them have the courage to consider it as an option.
“I said don’t let being female hold you back. Offshore, my clothes get just as dirty as the guys! If you can think outside the box and like a challenging environment, offshore wind offers exciting career opportunities for sure!”
Are you interested in working in Renewables? Check out our current open vacancies here and apply online today!