When I first tell people what my job is, there are a number of responses I am likely to receive, mostly surprise or a slight hint of confusion. One of the most memorable was someone who looked at me, looked at me again and then asked, “aren’t you a bit small to be an engineer?”. The response just goes to show how little people know about engineering, and the preconceptions that can deter people from entering a fantastically varied and rewarding career. The closest response I get to people knowing what I do is, “A civil engineer? What, like bridges and stuff?”
Perhaps it’s time to shed a bit more light on what I do as a civil engineer. If I’m honest, I’m still learning too!
Yes, some civil engineers design bridges – in fact there’s a whole group of them that I can see from my desk here in the civil engineering design office that I work in. However, building bridges is just a part of their role. They also design culverts to drain water safely from underneath roads and railways, parapets to stop people falling off bridges or into ditches, and they make sure our existing bridges don’t suddenly fall down!
Behind me in the office are more civil engineers, but these ones carry out drainage design. Their job is ensuring that when it rains, our roads don’t flood and turn commuting into a water-based activity.
As for me, and my group of engineers, it’s different again. We are highways engineers. It’s down to us to design the layers that make up a road and decide the best places for new roads to go. Together, we provide improvements and maintenance design for all of the roads looked after by a county council.
Until I started working on highways design, I never appreciated the complexities of designing and building a road. Everything must be thought of, from building a gentle camber to stop water pooling in the road, to making sure that each layer of the road is strong enough to support the number of vehicles driving on it every day. The busiest section of the M25, between Junctions 13 and 14, carries around 200,000 vehicles a day. That’s a lot of impact.
The same is true for cycle ways. My job isn’t just about improving roads, but also the pavements and cycle routes that often run alongside them. As cycling has increased in popularity, civil engineers have been working hard in the background to improve cycling facilities. I am currently working on a new cycle route which connects to existing routes, allowing more people to reach even more places safely on two wheels.
We know that safer cycle routes can encourage more people into the saddle. As well as the health benefits, we can start to reduce the number of car users, cutting congestion on our already busy roads. What I love most about my job is seeing these tangible benefits of engineering, and the improvements I can make to people’s lives.
While I was studying at university I was drawn to the idea of making a real difference to people’s lives through engineering. In my first year, I became president of Engineers Without Borders, Birmingham. I stayed active with the society throughout my course, and I am now involved in the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) UK national executive. In the developing world, engineering provides life changing improvements, which we often take for granted. Engineers Without Borders provides technical support and appropriately qualified people for development projects around the world. These include creating reliable roads and finding cheaper, stronger materials to help houses withstand storms.
Perhaps the challenge people face when trying to describe engineering is the fact that it covers such a huge variety of topics and areas.
On a daily basis I work with people who specialise in drainage, soil mechanics, structures, road signs and street lighting, to name just a few of the roles. So when I tell someone I’m a civil engineer, I smile as they say, “what, bridges and stuff?” and reply, “yes, bridges and stuff; a lot of stuff!”