The NFU Mutual Engineering team play a key role in our customer’s motor claims by ensuring the right engineer is involved with the right job as quickly as possible. Each engineer manages individual cases, repairs and suppliers, providing the best claim outcome for our customers and the business.

In 2018, Rebecca Leonard was part of the team who managed the diaries for NFU Mutual's Engineering team in Glasgow. It was there that she had what she calls "a lightbulb moment", when she realised the business had no female vehicle assessors. So, despite having none of the usual technical experience, she decided to change that. We talked to her about how she became one of only a handful of women across the UK and the only woman within NFU Mutual to gain Automotive Technician Accreditation and Vehicle Damage Assessor qualifications.

It sounds like quite a journey. How did it all start?
I joined NFU Mutual in 2013 in the Claims team. And then moved into the team that managed the diaries for our Field Engineers in 2018. It was there that I realised there were no females who had the Automotive Technician Accreditation (ATA) qualifications at NFU Mutual. My lightbulb moment came when I thought, I'm sure I could do that. So I approached the Head of Engineering with an idea to train for the ATA. And luckily, he agreed.

You didn't have a technical background, so how much of a challenge was it?
It was huge. The biggest challenge was that I was doing something that had never been done before. I was a young female looking to take on a male-dominated role and I didn't have the usual skills that people in the job generally have. And nobody had ever thought of taking non-technical people and training them up to do the job. In fact, I think some people thought it couldn't be done. But I suppose that just gave me more drive to succeed.

I'm just that kind of person - if people say something's impossible, I want to try and do it. So, I wanted to prove the concept that someone with no technical knowledge of vehicles could gain the level of skills they needed.

Studying for the qualification must have taken a lot of hard work
It certainly wasn't easy, that's for sure. There was a lot of learning on the job, and around four or five months of hard studying. The ATA includes a qualification as a Vehicle Damage Assessor (VDA), so it has a lot of different sections. There was a lot of reading and online study, which I did in my own time.

It was like becoming an apprentice as part of the engineering team. In reality, I knew that I'd never be as skilled as guys who spend their whole working life in a garage. But I thought that if I could get about half of their knowledge by learning from them and through personal study, then it would be a good achievement.

What kind of support did you get?
I had some great support from the engineering team. My manager Thomas Kerr also provided fantastic support, not only technical support but personal support when I had any moments of doubt. He even did the ATA VDA assessment with me, so I wasn’t going through it alone. There's a big practical aspect to the exam. And for me, that was the hardest element. It's easy to be able to read up on stuff, but you need to be able to put it into practice. But we have a lot of experienced and knowledgeable engineers, and I was just a sponge, soaking up all they could tell me. Also, one of our Desk Engineers had recently gained the ATA and he offered to be my mentor for the practical aspect. He had the patience of a saint, taking me through the whole process, step-by-step.

The company gave me a lot of support, too. My mentor said that the best way to get a good idea of the practical side was to visit some salvage agents. NFU Mutual allowed us both to spend seven or eight days away from our jobs on these visits. Allowing two people to be out for days at a time was a big commitment. I wouldn't have got through the exam without that kind of support.

What's your role now, and how has gaining the ATA made a difference?
In 2020, a new team to reduce loss handling times was created and I was delighted to become the Assistant Manager. So, I help lead a small team of loss handlers, all from different non-technical backgrounds. We get a huge variety of challenges, because a lot of our customers have specially adapted vehicles for business use. And vehicles are changing all the time, so I'm always learning. The team has been really successful - we've reduced the time for total loss claims, from taking between 10-12 days to contact a customer after an accident, to just 48 hours.

A big part of my role is giving the team technical guidance when they come across a technical issue they haven't seen before. Gaining the ATA and VDA qualifications means I have a lot more technical knowledge now. And it's definitely given me more confidence in advising the team. It's funny how having a piece of paper can do that!

It's opened up new pathways for me, as well. Because having the ATA qualification meant I could study to be an Appropriately Qualified Person (AQP). You need AQP accreditation to categorise vehicle salvage. My line manager was the only AQP in my team, signing off around 35 losses a day. Now that I’m an AQP, I can sign off salvage categorisations and share the workload.

So, now you've got ATA and VDA qualifications, what's next?
I got ATA and VDA qualifications in October 2022 and gained AQP status in December 2022. I'll probably have a couple of months' rest after that! But there are always lots of courses available and I like to think that I can go on and learn more.

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