Women in construction: Valerie O’Sullivan, Chief Executive for Cork County Council

by | May 15, 2024

Equal measures: Industry insight from a women’s point of view

Valerie O’Sullivan is Chief Executive for Cork County Council. Originally from the rebel county – ‘I’m from Cork, work in Cork, and won’t ever work anywhere else’ she says – Valerie has been in her current role, leading a major construction programme with her
teams, for the past seven months.

“I’ve been a public servant all of my working life, with social housing construction programmes in the city and the county featuring large in my experience,” she says. “I don’t work in the industry, I work with the industry and can deliver nothing without it.” Cork

County Council is the second largest local authority in Ireland with over 2,700 staff serving a population in excess of 360,000.

How did you reach your current level of success?

Being lucky enough to have worked with brilliant people, hard work and track record of delivery – that enabled me to be a career public servant with a story to tell as I followed that career path.

Why do you do what you do professionally?

To make a difference to the county, to people’s lives and to leave a place better than I found it, hopefully. The private sector has to be driven by the bottom line, public servants are driven by improving quality of life and priming the county to take advantage of opportunities. I like that prospect and it drives me on.

Tell us about your first job in the industry?

I was never ‘in’ the industry, but I guess I’m part of it. My first job as a public servant was as a library assistant straight out of college. I love books, but it wasn’t for me.

Best advice you’ve received to date?

Keep it simple, from former Cork City Manager Joe Gavin. It allows public servants to cut through the noise, the system sometimes, keep our eye on the prize and deliver it – remember not to complicate things, we are already operating in a very complex environment.

Your advice to women considering a career in the construction industry?

My advice to women in general considering a career anywhere is the fact you are a woman is irrelevant in my experience. The best person should get the job – if that’s you, great. And if it is a man, don’t feel you didn’t get it because you are a woman. We need to move on from those conceptions. They never entered my mind.

Most surprising thing you’ve heard as a woman working in construction?

Nothing surprises me anymore!

Biggest myth about women in the industry?

I don’t know of any first hand because I’m not in the industry per se. I have driven some of the largest construction programmes in the country and have worked with brilliant people, men and women. I would say don’t assume a woman is in any way less expert or competent than a man in the industry. It’s just not true.

What big change would benefit the industry?

Perhaps an intervention that directs all the agencies to align with the industry. Infrastructure is needed to enable development and facilitate viability, and local government is not responsible for everything required. There must be collective responsibility and programmes must follow that imperative. Implementation should follow the policy in this way. We cannot hit the growth targets Ireland needs without the industry, and industry can’t be hamstrung by the infrastructure deficits.

What projects are you most excited by?

The potential for the Cork Harbour Region to be an early mover in the offshore renewable energy space, and priming the Eastern Corridor to be ready for that. We have a green energy park zoning and the prospect of clean, green jobs within touching distance if we invest now. That is exciting for the country and it is the future of Ireland, where Cork is positioned to take centre stage and deliver.

What trends are you noticing?

We are all energy efficiency focussed, costs continue to go up, and the number of starts and completions do not tally with the number of planning permissions granted, running at less than half. So the space between a grant of permission and a commencement notice must be examined and addressed.

Who’s impressing you most right now?

We are fortunate enough to have great developers in the Cork region. Cork Docklands is happening and it’s great to see. Honestly, local government is impressive – we are addressing social housing need in Cork and we are running multimillion euro programmes across housing, roads, public realm, active travel and much more. I’m always impressed with local government’s capacity and ability to get things done.

What lessons have you learned along the way?

All mistakes have value in your future. Nobody dies, we aren’t in the health service, so put your hand up and move on. Don’t hide it. Own it and learn from it.

Who do you admire?

Anyone willing to speak the truth, even if it’s not the popular thing to say. My late father for his intelligence, humour and work ethic. Former City Manager Joe Gavin for his straightforward leadership approach. Everyone always knew where they stood and he delivered so much for the city. And many of the people I now work with – the best in the business, solutions focussed, finding ways to do things instead of reasons why we can’t.

Proudest moment to date?

The fact that I have two children who have grown up to be wonderful adults. Maybe going back to education and getting my MBA. And of all the achievements at work, I think opening the two Foyer facilities in the city for homeless people between age 18 and 25 is among the most meaningful of things to have been a part of. It wasn’t the stuff of headlines, but it was a great thing to do.

How does your company support equality and diversity?

We fully embrace it, we have women and men at the most senior levels. We have continued blended working and we have a strong wellbeing programme and a range of supports for everyone. Cork County Council is a great place to work – that’s why I applied to return there.

Describe a day out of office?

Nothing exciting – my kids are my friends, my two dogs, mindless TV series, reading, shopping and chocolate. A good night in with all of those and I’m happy!

Valerie O’Sullivan is a speaker at the Southern Construct Summit & Exhibition 2024, taking place on May 23 at the Clayton Hotel Silver Springs in Cork. She will take part in a panel discussion on ‘Updating and modernising our infrastructure plan to account for Cork’s surge in population’.

For more go to www.southernconstruct.ie

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