CIBSE Role Models - Lionel James


To celebrate Black History Month, we're interviewing members of the CIBSE community to help inspire and promote diversity amongst future engineers. This week, we hear from Lionel James, a Chartered Engineer and Chartered Manager.

My name is Lionel James; I am a Chartered Engineer and Chartered Manager with over 35+ years’ experience employed with both Building Services (BS) Design Consultancies and Contractors.

My career started at Ove Arup & Partners Ltd in 1981 (now operating as Arup), the office was based in Birmingham. I was the first Black (African/Caribbean ethnicity) Trainee BS Engineer to be employed in the Birmingham office.

During my career as a Building Services Engineer, I have worked for numerous Consultancies and Contractors in roles from Mechanical Designer, Principal Designer and Associate Director.

I am currently employed as the Lead Building Services Lecturer and Assessor with Solihull College, in the Construction and Built Environmental Dept. I teach on courses at Level 3, 4 and 5, as well as supporting Coventry University on their Degree (Level 6) course.

I am also a qualified Mentor, Member of the Technicians Apprentice Consortium (West Midlands) and a regional STEM Ambassador.

What first interested you in becoming an engineer? Have you faced any particular challenges along the way?

When my father first arrived in England from Jamaica in 1960, the only work anyone would give him so he could earn a living to care for his family, was as a Labourer on a Construction site in Birmingham, working outside in all conditions.

My first interest in Engineering was at around the age of six, my older brother was given a Scalextric and I an Airfix model Aeroplane for Christmas. When we both got fed up with playing with them, I took the motors out of my brothers two cars and incorporated them into my Airfix Aeroplane to power the propellers.

As a black engineer, I have faced and continue to face many challenges in a field where I am in the minority. In the early years of my career colleagues were visibly surprised when meeting me for the first time in person. On numerous occasions, I would be greeted with a surprised expression and responses like, “Oh, are you Lionel James?”, or “I was expecting someone else?” as I did not look like the person they had spoken to on the phone.

However, my self-determination and inner resolve enabled me to rise above this issue, especially because I had no other black colleagues in the business like myself to discuss these issues with.

Unfortunately, this situation still exists in many businesses, little has really changed in the construction industry and in particular parts of society. It is sad that the struggle continues for many of my fellow black colleagues who are having to follow behind me into this industry.

What has been the proudest moment of your career to date?

One of my proudest moments was being successfully elected as the first black Chair for the CIBSE West Midlands regional committee. I was also first to hold the Chair’s post in any of the 16 regional committees in the Institution’s 125-year history (1897 – 2020). CIBSE members are now represented in 94 countries around the world.

I was also very proud to have mentored Lee Tabis, who won the coveted CIBSE ASHRAE Graduate of the Year 2012 title while working for N.G Bailey. This was quite an achievement as he was the only Graduate to win the award whilst employed and trained by a Mechanical Electrical Public Health Contractor in the 18-year history of the award. All previous winners were from Consultancy practices.

I am a very strong advocate of mentoring & coaching, so I was also extremely proud to be invited to attend the CIBSE Board Away Day in 2013. I spoke on the benefits of quality mentoring and the issues
associated with the shortage of registered Engineering Technicians (EngTech) in CIBSE.

Who has been your biggest professional role model?

I cannot single out one individual, but looking back over my career, three people immediately come to mind.

Mr Roy Shields - Design Manager at Arup (Director, 27 Nov 1991- 1 Jan 2002) who employed me as a Trainee Building Services Engineer (Mechanical) in the Birmingham Office.

Mr William ‘Bill’ McGee and Mr Barry ‘Baz’ Deakin were two of the most influential Senior Design Engineers and mentors. They both taught me some great basic principles during the informative years of my career, helping me to set a sound foundation for my 35-year career in the industry, which paved the way for where I am today.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

You are created equal to everyone else, so you can make a difference in society and in the world.

Always give your best, you have been blessed with the potential.

Always look for the good in others and every situation, no matter how mean, difficult, or desperate they are, or it may seem. When you are kind to others, you are being kind to yourself; when you are cruel to other you hurt yourself.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart, do not try to figure out everything on your own. Listen to Gods voice in everything you do and everywhere you go, He is the only one who will keep you on track.

Find out more about the work CIBSE are doing to improve Inclusivity and Diversity in the building services industry.

Read the latest articles from Black History Month on STEM Careers

If you'd like to take part in our Role Model series, please contact 


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