Growing skills on the job and taking STEM in a different direction

An education in STEM needn’t be seen as narrowing career path options. BOC’s Edith Butterfield talks about how having an inquisitive mind has helped her adapt to her many roles in the company.

These days, it is considered highly unusual for younger members of the workforce to stay within one industry for longer than a few years – let alone forge an almost 14-year career with a single company. But that is exactly what Edith Butterfield has done. After graduating from the University of Nottingham in the UK with a Master of Science (Chemistry) in June 2005, Butterfield joined BOC in October of the same year. It was the first job she applied for upon graduation. She has been with the company ever since.

“I remember telling the two people interviewing me that I was looking for a company that I could grow with and stay with, and that I didn’t want them to hire me if they were just going to have me do one job and then nothing else,” Butterfield told PACE. “But, luckily, I was entering into a company that invests in its people and develops them.”

Her first role was in BOC’s UK customer service team, where she answered customer enquiries and serviced accounts, before moving into product management in 2006, where she worked across the company’s water treatment, pharmaceutical and medical sectors. The roles required her to work closely with customers, helping her to develop high-level interpersonal skills that she hadn’t learned at university.

“I didn’t come to the company with the skills that I’ve got today. While my science background helped me get my foot in the door – as I was initially working in the scientific side of customer service – working closely with people meant taking on another range of skills,” Butterfield said. “In my product management role, I was getting out there interacting with our customers, which is crucial if you are to understand what their business actually is and what drives them.”

Butterfield said BOC was a global company with a broad reach into many different industries and sectors, and it offered STEM graduates like her the opportunity to follow many interesting paths. “You can go into engineering, you can go into marketing, you can work in the healthcare sector or in food and leisure. And I think that’s something that’s important for those studying in STEM – it’s about realising there are so many things you can do. If you’re keen to learn and willing to work hard, the opportunities are endless – especially if you partner with a company that genuinely wants to invest in you and help you grow.”

Butterfield’s eagerness to grasp opportunities took her out of the UK and to Australian shores. In 2011, Butterfield applied for a working holiday in Australia, moving to BOC’s North Ryde office in Sydney. “I was looking for a change and I had never been to Australia. I only planned on staying for a year, but I loved the role and I loved the country,” she said. As a fumigation and pest control representative across NSW and Queensland, Butterfield was confronted with the vastness of the Australian landscape. “For my first customer visit, I developed a plan and sent it to my manager. He sent it back and said ‘That’s great, Edith, but that will require 16 hours’ worth of driving in one day, and that’s not even including your customer visits’. It made me realise just how big Australia is,” Butterfield said.

“Travelling around those rural areas made me fall in love with Australia. I remember driving on these remote country roads where I could look around and see nothing but fields and natural landscape for miles. I found it very striking. And to this day I still have a great love for little country towns.”

Butterfield said she has always had a thirst for learning and a passion for discovering how things work – it’s what drew her to science in the first place when she went to university.

And it has been fundamental to her growth within BOC. Taking a technical approach, she has educated herself on many industry practices – from medical standards, engineering processes, up to obtaining a fumigation licence – to further her engagement and understanding of the sectors she worked with.

“I come from a STEM background, and, even as a kid, I wanted to pull things apart to see how they worked. My science degree further bolstered my analytic and inquiring mind, my keenness to learn and my determination to search for the truth,” she said. “And that has also helped me develop my people skills at BOC. When you boil it down, being good at dealing with others is about being able to understand difference personalities and work with them to discover what needs to be done.”

Butterfield has also been determined to grow these skills, taking courses in communication and negotiation skills and engaging in facilitation workshops. And now she is in a role where these skills are put to the test daily. In 2018, Butterfield was made customer service manager BOC’s industrial business, where she oversees a team of 45 customer service operators.

Having been supported in her career growth throughout her time at BOC, Butterfield said she was enjoying providing that role for a new generation of employees. “It’s probably the thing I love most about my current role. Throughout my own career, I’ve had really excellent managers who have always been supportive and willing to develop me – and now I get to be that person,” she said.

Butterfield’s strengths as a manager were recognised last year at the 2018 Women in Industry Awards, where she was a finalist in the Rising Star category. Her depth of knowledge and vast experience– gained over a career in many roles dealing with several different industries – is helping her get the best out of her team.

“After over 13 years at BOC, I’ve got enough experience now to genuinely have something to give. I love working with my team to develop them and improve them and help them find roles in the company that align with their interests,” she said. “They’re coming into the company the same way I did – through customer service. This gives them a good grounding in the company and the industry. They can take that knowledge with them into their next role. For me, it’s about looking at the diversity of the team and thinking about where they can grow within BOC.”

With the number of young Australians pursuing degrees in STEM shrinking, Butterfield said it was more important than ever that STEM was not narrowly conceived as a one-track path. “I did chemistry at university because I loved it. My career, however, has not been in chemistry. But the analytical frame of mind, the preparedness to question and probe and get to the crux of the matter – these skills have been fundamental to my journey at BOC,” she said.

Butterfield said that the analytical and inquisitive skills that she acquired at university, along with her thirst for knowledge, have enabled her to grow within a company that wants to support and develop its people, and give them the tools to move forward.

“A STEM background can be a great platform for helping a person build a whole array of skills if they join a company that is willing to help them grow,” she said.

“I would always encourage people to study STEM degrees. And if you have an engineering or a science degree, work on the skills you have and look at what skills you can build. I’ve always felt that the opportunities are endless when you are willing to learn.”